The (faulty) neuroscience behind attachment parenting


Yesterday, I read this article on Slate.com about how sleep training (‘crying it out’) may not be as dangerous as some groups may lead you to believe it is. Frequent readers of this blog may know that I haven’t tried much sleep training with BlueEyes, despite his frequent night waking, because I felt more comfortable soothing or nursing him to sleep. And then it is nice to read in books like Sue Gerhardts “Why love matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain” that this is the ‘right’ thing to do, because neuroscience tells us so
But wait a minute, I’m a neuroscientist myself (and one who is very interested in the developing brain too). So why do I read a book about the brain without questioning where those references come from, whether the author interprets them correctly and whether she leaves out any relevant research? Let’s say I was sleep deprived for a while and of course it is nice to hear that the strategy that you’re choosing is the right one, because neuroscience tells us so. But both the Slate article and this paper by Bruce Maxwell (that DrSpouse tweeted to me) show that if you take a good look at the real neuroscience behind these parenting advices, the science is really not that solid. The rationale behind responsive parenting or attachment parenting is that responding adequately to your baby’s needs keeps their cortisol levels low, which is important because high cortisol levels will have lasting, negative effects on the developing brain. However, as I said before, the science is not that solid: evidence either comes from children that are neglected heavily (such as orphans in third world countries), or from animal studies where young monkeys or rats are isolated from their mothers. These results are then extrapolated to children whose parents let them cry it out. Or, as the slate piece points out, the results come from a study that looks at cortisol levels during hospital-based sleep training, but this study really fails to include any relevant control group. However people abuse this study by drawing conclusions that are really not warranted by the data.
So do I still ‘believe’ in my parenting strategy? Yes, because it’s honestly just parenting for lazy people, and it’s a style that seems to work for us. However, I will never again think that I am doing it this way because of the neuroscience evidence, because that is really too thin to draw such firm conclusions. We need to do much better controlled studies, or longitudinal studies looking at the outcomes of different parenting strategies to say things like this. And I think it is sad and even unethical that writers of parenting books and articles take such a one-sided view and lead lay parents to believe that there is scientific evidence for any parenting strategy.
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1 Comment

Filed under attachment parenting, co-sleeping, parenting

One response to “The (faulty) neuroscience behind attachment parenting

  1. Totally agree here (though I'm not a neuroscientist). This is what fuels my anger about Mayim Bialik touting her NS background in abstaining from vaccines.

    Parenting for us is all about the intersection of 'what works for us' and 'what our kids can tolerate'. Or maybe I just hope that skipping the occasional birthday party or after-school event because younger sibling needs a nap will not damage a child for the long term.

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