Crying out loud: mothercraft theories clash

Amanda Cox, with her youngest of three sons, six-month-old Charlie, is a controlled-crying devotee with her own blog on child-raising, "Diary of a Mad Cow". Photo: Melanie Dove

STOP fussing and let the little blighters cry their hearts out or carry them around at all times so they have no chance to get upset at all.

These are the poles-apart parenting methods being trialled in the controversial ABC1 program Bringing Up Baby and they represent the extremes of the spectrum of how we look after our babies these days.

At the heart of the question of what is the right way to raise a rug-rat lies a simpler question: how hands-on does your baby need you to be?

Fifteen years ago, controlled crying was favoured by mainstream mothercraft nurses: an unsettled baby was left to cry for increasing periods (one minute, two minutes, five minutes) to give the child a sense of confidence and security, and they would settle themselves.

It's still a widely used practice, but has since fallen out of favour with some professionals.

"Controlled crying has become ingrained in the community and there are huge debates between parents on baby websites such as Bub Hub but we're against it," says Annemarie Sansom, early childhood consultant and founder of Night Nannies, an in-home service for sleep-resistant babies.

"The trend now is for more gentler methods, but how do you tell parents who have used controlled crying for so long that this is a form of abuse now?"

The word "abuse" is a red rag to any mother. Mum of three Amanda Cox writes a blog, "Diary of a Mad Cow", on realmums., and remains a controlled-crying devotee.

"I don't like being told it's not OK," she says. "My view is that controlled crying has been taken out of context and put out there as something really awful by the anti-control cryers. And it's just not true.

"What you're doing is listening to the crying reach a certain pitch and then responding to it."

Ms Cox, whose youngest child is six months, also resents the rise of "the baby wearers the people who never put the baby down".

"It's getting very trendy where they wear their babies in a sling, sleep with them it's a growing lobby group. It's not something I feel comfortable with. I don't like being pressured into raising my baby in a particular way. I'm a firm believer in doing what feels right so we play, we feed, we sleep."

What Ms Cox calls "baby wearers" are devotees of the Continuum Concept, where babies are raised in a "tribal" fashion: worn on the hip in slings rather than pushed around in strollers, fed on the breast whenever they ask for it, and who sleep with their mothers.

The Continuum Concept, based on attachment theory and being trialled on the ABC's Bringing Up Baby, was a product of the hippie-flavoured '70s and has been enjoying a resurgence.

Attachment-style parenting has come into vogue largely because of the advances made by neuroscience in understanding infant brain and emotional development, which argues that healthy neural pathways are more likely to occur in a stress-free, nurturing environment.

Although this in itself is vague given the emotional health of the parents is crucial to keeping a baby calm and happy the mothercraft community has responded to the science with the development of "responsive settling", which doesn't mean just running to the cot when the baby cries but reading infant cues and body language.

Says Pam Linke, national president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health: "We now know that if you respond to babies when they need it, it helps to build a strong attachment and the baby's sense of security."

The Royal Children's Hospital, which last week hosted a seminar on the issue, still supports controlled crying in certain circumstances, citing the fact that there is no peer-reviewed evidence that the technique does any harm.

Keynote speaker at the seminar was Ronald Barr, director of the Centre for Community Child Health Research at the Child and Family Research Institute in Vancouver. Professor Barr has researched infant crying around the world and found that there are no models of parenting that will stop infants crying in the early months. "But he found the one that has the best impact and reduces crying by 50 per cent is the baby wearing," says Ms Linke.

The Sunday Age was unable to contact Professor Barr for an interview.

Adds Ms Linke: "If you're coming from a place where you don't respond, then the function of crying isn't met, leading the child to a sense of abandonment and insecurity."

This seems to resonate at a gut level for many Australians, especially when you consider the outrage sparked by the first episode of Bringing Up Baby where an apparently unqualified mothercraft nurse, Claire Verity, championed an extreme form of "detached" parenting from the 1920s.

According to Ms Verity, babies do better when they are left to cry, receive no more than 10 minutes' physical affection a day and are not engaged with via eye contact and talking whilst feeding.

The resulting flood of complaints from the public and baby experts resulted in the ABC having to post a disclaimer that the methods being trialled weren't actually endorsed by the national broadcaster and that some practices weren't consistent with contemporary sleep methods that minimise the risk of SIDS.

Ms Linke says: "I'd like to think that the gentler approach was the trend, but there is this strong residual belief in making people independent rather than making them interdependent. People look for quick solutions and bringing up babies is a slow process."

What's in and out with infants

■15 years ago babies were put down to sleep on their stomachs for fear they might choke on their vomit.

Now it's recommended they sleep on their backs as a means of reducing the risk of cot death.

15 years ago "controlled crying" was seen as a godsend for parents. Babies were allowed to cry in stages, for increasing periods, as a means of having them settle themselves in their cots.

Now controlled crying is regarded by many mothercraft nurses as potentially damaging to a child's development and emotional welfare, although there is no actual research to show this is the case, one way or the other. "Responsive settling" is the new recommended order, where parents learn to read the cues and body language of their babies before the wailing begins.

15 years ago the push for mothers to breastfeed was very strong on the basis that breast is best for nutrition and immunological reasons.

Now the breast-feeding lobby is even stronger.