Monday, May 13, 2013

The Threshold Theory or A meditation on strollers: Why we should get every last one of them off the planet.

A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker, a raving lunatic. ~ Dresden James

Just put yourself in your baby’s stroller, visually rather. The kind where s/he faces out as if in the driver’s seat, ready to see the world. Or is he? At 6 months? At 1 year? Now, go to the mall. Walk around. What do you see? Legs. Shoes. Other strollers. More legs. People. Children. Some even zoom in for a closer look. They are loud and scary…. I haven’t seen my mom in a long time. I wonder if she is coming back. Ever. I fuss. I call for her. I get a Nuk popped in my mouth. I spit it out. I cry. I get a bottle next. Still haven’t seen Mom. 
Babies don’t know if we are coming back. Ever. They have no experience of time: either you are there or you are not. And when you are not and they call for you and you don’t come, they are learning something, true, but it is that you are gone and may never come back. They can actually begin to grieve. They do not learn to put themselves to sleep nor do they learn that after a certain interval of time to expect you will return. You are simply gone. And in their minds that may mean forever. And if later you do show up and then disappear all over again, they still don’t learn the meaning of that. It does not register as it would with Pavlov’s dog. We don’t ‘train’ them to learn our erratic schedules. We simply fail to respond in the ways they have been wired for since the beginning of Time.

Their voice is all they have to use to communicate with. That is it. If this doesn’t produce the results that have been programmed to work for millions of years, then we are in trouble. And the consequences are tragic. Their one and only means of communication is cut off. It should work but it doesn’t. They cannot smell you from their position in the stroller. They do not see you. They gaze around and crane their little necks to find your voice but cannot locate you even if they do hear you (on your cell phone). So, let’s say they do get a quick look. What are you doing? You are talking to an inanimate object and not to them. They learn something else: we can bond with inanimate objects. And talk to them. Don’t some children with severe emotional problems also do this? They are not touching you either. They expect to be kept warm at least against you if not skin-to-skin. For 9 months they felt and heard your heartbeat. That is what all our sh-sh-shushing imitates when we try to calm them - that familiar heartbeat. So far their senses of touch, sight, sound and smell have failed them miserably -- the only means they have built in for the purpose of survival. They aren’t working and they don’t know why. Oh, yeah, there is still taste. And the Nuk doesn’t do it. Not what I expect or had imprinted at birth. So, if she is not coming back, I am finished. Might as well go to sleep. And give up. Forever. (It is also called failure to thrive.)

How many of these missed opportunities to bond will it take to convince my baby that his instincts aren’t worth much? How many times for each attempt? Researchers now say that by 9 months they can find babies that will not hold your gaze. They are using this to predict those babies who might be pre-autistic. They are showing the early symptoms aren’t they? They don’t ask why they are seeing this in a certain percentage of infants, only that they are. And they ask, can we trace this back to genes? Yes, that must be it! Back to the laboratory. Back to that DNA and the mysterious world of genetics. Wrong. Those early cues that they sent out were not rewarded: either at all, or at levels below the threshold for that bonding connection.

While I am at it, I would also ban those little car seats with handles from the Earth. The ones you clip into the frame you’ve secured in your car. When you get to the grocery store you unclip it and carry it in, placing it on top of the shopping cart, pushing the thing down each aisle, dashing right or left out of your baby’s line of vision, returning with more items, only to disappear from sight once again. When you are done shopping you push the cart to the cashier and unload the cart from the other end while baby stares at the ceiling. Next you get to your car, fill up the boot with the groceries, put baby into the back seat once more, facing the rear window, and drive home. If your baby has fallen asleep on the ride home you will quietly unclip it and carefully pick up the carrier and set it down in the kitchen while you put everything away. You let baby sleep where she is until she wakes up. You have not held baby for over 3 hours or more, much less skin-to-skin. She may have made vocal attempts to locate you, looked for your familiar eyes, certainly hasn’t smelled or touched you… exactly how many cues has she sent out during that time? Now add those all to the list of missed bonding opportunities.

How many times does it take for a baby to send out a cue with her eyes and not get a return glance in order to give up on that specific instinct? By 9 months? How many attempts will an infant make to coo and then fuss and finally cry and getting no result chalk that mechanism up to failure, too. Smell? Same thing. Touch? Are you getting the picture?
There is a threshold, I believe, for each sense and what that minimum requirement will be for bonding to happen. We do not know yet how much of each sense needs to be reciprocated by a baby’s mother (or surrogate caregiver) in order for successful bonding to occur. Perhaps ten times a day that baby initiates a sound and is rewarded by something – anything, even some nonsense in motherese (baby talk) will do. The same holds true for when he looks at you and sees your eyes in the first weeks and later is able to take in your whole face. And when he reaches out or opens his mouth are those cues recognized and rewarded? If they are not, will 5 times out of 10 still ensure bonding? Or are we already sending a poor signal? How much is enough? How much is just too little? Could this also work if a caregiver and not the mother responded appropriately as happens in orphanages, though we already know that babies who spend a majority of the time during their first year in a crib are well below the threshold to bond in any recognizable form which we now call attachment deficit disorder. Failure to bond has dire consequences. This refers to the research being done both here and in Russia by the eminent scholar, Dr. Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I have wondered which factors or senses are more important than others. Is touch paramount? Or must there be an equal amount of reciprocal voices? A study of deaf mothers and their hearing babies and their high levels of successful well-being leads us to believe that sound or the lack of it may not be as important in the overall picture of bonding as touch is, for example. Because in autism there is such an extensive spectrum of disabilities for example, might we hypothesize that perhaps different combinations of differing levels of non-response to the cues of bonding may affect different babies differently?

We know from the early studies done by Harry Harlow with baby rhesus monkeys that were taken away from their mothers shortly after birth that all of them consistently preferred the wire frame surrogate ‘mother’ covered in cloth to the un-huggable ‘mother’ that was only a wire figure, even though she had a ready source of milk attached to her frame. Those monkeys deprived of even the cloth covered frame mother exhibited severe emotional trauma. What does this ghastly experiment teach us? (Psychologist Harry Harlow conducted his work in the 1950s on maternal deprivation in rhesus monkeys which became the landmarks not only in primatology, but in the evolving science of attachment and loss.) 
If we had a grid or bonding index/assessment tool© (copyright pending sss) to rank or grade cues and their response from both baby and  mother and then the responses in return from each, could we see where the deficit might lie? I think we would at least see a pattern of cues that a particular baby initiates over a period of time and then count the times he receives a response/reward and the times that doesn’t work as he expects.

All babies are born with initial instincts that Nature put there and intended to be used reciprocally as tools of survival. Bonding is not a one-way, occasional process that can be eventually done away with as superfluous. It is part of a grand continuum that we have ignored, forgotten, and completely dispensed with. No wonder we are where we find ourselves today. I think we can all agree that far too many children have far too many irreversible problems in this most advanced of all ages of Man (and Woman) and that there are more possible diagnoses than  ever before in history for these behavioral aberrations. Not that we now have more names for things that we couldn’t name before or can now diagnose. Rather, that there are more failures than ever before in the continuum, and we have not found the answers to this dilemma but are actually further than ever from finding a cure. We are looking in the wrong place.

My premise is that we are bringing stone-age babies into a space-age world.§  Their needs have not changed in tens of thousands of years. Their needs have not magically evolved over millennia.  But we treat them as if they have.© sss 2011

Many great thinkers have puzzled over this one for many years. The noted psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, in his book, An Anthropologist on Mars,* also recognized these earliest bonding connections or disconnections as observed in autistic children, but was berated by defensive parents for labels such as ‘‘chilling relationship with mother.’’ Other researchers have also noted similar findings.  In “Bad” Mothers,** by Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, in chapter 11, an essay by Jane Taylor McDonnell, she talks about labels like, “refrigerator mothers.”
On Blame
This subject is surrounded by much controversy. We avoid it but shouldn’t. I propose that any and all blame/guilt is held by the medical community alone, and not bad mothering or parenting. How many generations have been telling their daughters and sons not to spoil their children and instead let them cry? That it is good for their lungs? Before we knew what damage cigarettes caused infants in utero, or alcohol (FAS), or the deadly risks of Thalidomide, the drug notorious for severe flipper-like birth defects seen in the 1950s, we the medical community, could not warn pregnant women of the risks and dangers. Instead we went merrily on our way endorsing an awful lot of wrong and even devastating trends, as if we were experts. Likewise, we are not able to teach/warn/look for clients at risk until more studies on bonding and others like it are conclusive.

A new model for research
I propose, however, an interesting paradigm to the dilemma. Instead of delving into studies that will take decades of collecting data and testing more babies, which I do not advocate, and will not benefit anyone, much less these little people during all those years, why not experiment with a new idea? Flip the traditional research model on its back this way: Instead of collecting data ad nauseum, put in place a preventive plan, in this case, continuum bonding. Teach an entire generation what continuum bonding should look like. Give them the tools and education they need to un-learn the only patterns they and past several generations have seen and we know now do not work. Then, after a period of time, go ahead and collect all the data you want, but ask these questions as you do so: Did this work? How did it work? For whom did it work? Do we have happier children in the groups that applied this knowledge? Will they now pass this onto their children? This research model has been used recently at Harvard Medical School in their studies of autism. It is so simple and makes so much better sense that it challenges our intellects: what have we been doing all these years in research, anyway? (See

Whoever brought up the idea of a 'nature deficite disorder' in recent history is on the right track, I believe. Not only do we NOT need over-stimulated, over-scheduled children needing to be driven to various activities throughout the week and twice that on weekends; not only should we unplug and power-down anything and everything electronic, wireless, nature-less and virtual, but when are we going to reconnect to what is real and in this moment?

The recent movement around the world to resurrect the age-old custom of wearing your baby – which many Third World countries had never given up – is making a comeback now. Your baby needs to smell you, taste you, be kept warm by you, fed by you and needs to hear and see you at a moment’s notice. Don’t miss these moments. They will soon be lost opportunities to bond which is an ongoing continuum relationship, not just occasions that are convenient for you.

What if bonding looked like this:
‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, (substitute here ‘interact with your baby’ for ‘drink your tea…’) as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vientamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar and peace activist.

* An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, by Oliver Sacks, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
**“Bad” Mothers, by Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, New York University Press, 1998, chapter 11, essay by Jane Taylor McDonnell

COMING SOON: This and other stories will be appearing in either Call The Doula! a diary© or Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:§ Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century© pending by Stephanie Sorensen

§This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping,” 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.

“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

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