Thursday, February 02, 2006
The Shutdown Syndrome
The Shutdown Syndrome: Sears Sucker-Punches the Maternal Guilt Complex
Welcome back to the crying game! To continue our discussion, I found an anecdote at askdrsears.com that I found worthy of deconstruction. Anyone care to join me?
Dr. Sears writes:
Heather had previously been a happy baby, thriving on a full dose of attachment parenting...The whole family was thriving and this style of parenting was working for them. Well-meaning friends convinced these parents that they were spoiling their baby, that she was manipulating them, and that Heather would grow up to be a clingy, dependent child.
Parents lost trust...They let Heather cry herself to sleep, scheduled her feedings, and for fear of spoiling, they didn't carry her as much... Heather went from being happy and interactive to sad and withdrawn. Her weight leveled off, and she went from the top of the growth chart to the bottom. Heather was no longer thriving, and neither were her parents.
Baby lost trust. After two months of no growth, Heather was labeled by her doctor "failure to thrive" and was about to undergo an extensive medical exam. When the parents consulted me, I diagnosed the shutdown syndrome...They unknowingly pulled the attachment plug on Heather, and the connection that had caused her to thrive was gone.
Ok. I can picture this situation. Everybody is telling you how to handle your perfectly happy, well adjusted child. You make some ill-advised changes based on half-assed renderings of child-rearing wisdom from people you didn't agree with to begin with, your new grudgingly-imposed restrictions work for no one. Everybody loses. But seriously, how far did these people go? Failure to thrive? Sad and withdrawn? Top to the bottom of the growth chart? Pretty dramatically not good. Did they lock her in her room and pass her a bottle through a slot in the door every four hours?
Where I get hung up is with the "shutdown syndrome" part. It's not that I don't think emotional deprivation has physiological consequences, that's been shown everywhere. It's just that a thing like "shutdown syndrome" gets sketchy when the first symptom of it is the child not crying--unthinkable failure masquerading as success. Ouch.
To illustrate, here's Sears again:
Babies thrive when nurtured. We believe every baby has a critical level of need for touch and nurturing in order to thrive...We believe that babies have the ability to teach their parents what level of parenting they need. It's up to the parents to listen, and it's up to professionals to support the parents' confidence and not undermine it by advising a more distant style of parenting, such as "let your baby cry-it-out" or "you've got to put him down more."
True, who would argue against the idea that children need to be nurtured. You can't walk away from a newborn and expect her to sleep through the night. If you have one, your whole being forces you out of bed in the middle of the night to give that baby the physical and emotional nurture she needs. However, are we to equate nurture with shutting the baby up no matter what it takes? Binkies? Wind-up-swings? All-night car rides? Car seat on the washing machine? Is it OK to tend the child's physical needs, and then just hold her or sit beside her through the hurt we can't solve for her? Supposing we succeed! And if we do, what do we do with the next statement?
Babies who are "trained" not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant, or "good" babies. Yet, these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs. They may become children who don't speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest-need adults.
Now this is just what the Maternal Guilt Complex needed. I mean, are we talking walk-don't-run trained, wind-down-a-few-minutes trained or Romanian-orphanage trained? Supposing I follow my mother's advice and do everything I would normally do (rock, sing, walk the floor) then put the baby down and go away for a few minutes. What if the baby actually stops crying? How can I tell if my baby is content or depressed? Do I get to blame my mother for making me a "high-needs adult?" Where are the data on high-needs adults?
Actually, lets construct some data. If there are any readers lurking out there who think they could classify themselves as either "high-needs" or "low-needs" adults, go call your mom and ask her what she did with you when you cried as a baby, then let us know on the comment board. We'll compile the data and see what we get!