Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Prescriptive Parenting, Part 2: What's the Deal With Babywise?

A while back I noticed something puzzling a friend had posted on Facebook. It was a screenshot of an iPhone sleep-training app. The idea is that app helps the weary, stressed-out parent keep track of how many minutes have actually passed  (usually less than they think, I'd imagine) since the last time they were in the nursery attempting to lull a fussy child to sleep. The app itself wasn't puzzling, but the comments under the picture confused me. I don't remember them verbatim, but essentially people were scandalized that Apple would allow its users to purchase an app that facilitates child abuse.

Child abuse? Holy shit! I've never had to use sleep training myself, but I think it's a potentially useful tool for parents who are too overwhelmed by their children's crying to make sensible sleep decisions. Calling it child abuse seemed a little extreme. I commented: I don't get it. What's so bad about this? My friend commented back with links denouncing a series of parenting materials called Becoming Babywise. Apparently, a large part of this strict, Christian fundamentalist approach to parenting is devoted to structuring a child's sleep schedule, which is what got my friend so worked up. The man behind the Babywise series, an evangelical minister named Gary Ezzo, believes that babies should be sleeping through the night by eight weeks. This is among many unrealistic beliefs being promoted by a man whose only child-care expertise comes from raising his own children. But just how bad could Babywise be, and was it possible that my friend (who practices attachment parenting, breastfeeds exclusively, and considers circumcision to be genital mutilation) was just overreacting?

Trying to find unbiased sources of information on this topic was surprisingly difficult. AP advocates like Katie Allison Granju describe Babywise as a sinister right-wing Christian agenda with potentially serious consequences in terms of children's mental and physical health. But Babywise parents and members of Ezzo's GFI ministry emphasize just how normal and common-sense the approach is, especially when compared to those who take attachment parenting to extremes. Now, I admit I haven't read these books myself (nor have I read Dr.Sears's attachment parenting book), but I've tried to figure out his basic approach to parenting by finding the answers to the following qustions.

What is the Babywise stance on sleeping, and can it be considered abusive?

Like attachment parenting, Babywise is focused on the way things ought to be. In Gary Ezzo's view, children should be sleeping through the night from a very young age. Parents should expect this and plan the infant's schedule accordingly. If a child wakes up crying, the parent should let him go at it for a while before checking on him. Ideally, the baby falls back asleep on his own. This is where sleep-training apps can come in handy. Time becomes extremely relative in the wee hours of the morning, and to an exhausted, aggravated parent a minute of crying can seem like an hour.

What this method doesn't take into account are the variability of a baby's cries. Sometimes fussing and whimpering can smooth out on its own as the baby shifts position or drifts back into sleep. But if he is uncomfortable or has a wet diaper, ignoring the problem only lets him get even wider awake as he waits for help. This can be stressful for him as he wonders why you are not responding to his cries. Plus, newborns get hungry every few hours, regardless of the time of day. Trying to ignore his hunger cries can be agonizing for mom and dad (and I doubt there is a mom alive who could sleep through such a sound), but can also be distressing to the baby, who is completely overwhelmed by the intense biological need to nurse.

So, while sleep-training itself is not abusive, using it in lieu of common sense can be. If you and your baby are both utterly miserable, then what you're trying is not working. Some parents who have refused to back down from Ezzo's expectations have ended up with children that are malnourished, dehydrated, and failing to thrive. Some babies really do sleep through the night starting at eight weeks or even younger. But to expect that of all babies is wildly unrealistic and potentially harmful.

What advice does Babywise offer about feeding?

Babywise emphasizes Parent Directed Feeding (PDF), which is just what it sounds like. Unlike attachment parenting, in which the baby's hunger cues determine when he is fed, the Babywise parent decides when, how often, and how much a baby should eat. Even breastfeeding (which the program encourages mothers to do) is to be done on a strict, carefully timed schedule. The idea is that you can "train" your child to only eat at appropriate meal times, even if it means they get very hungry between meals.

As children get older, the meals get even more controlled, to the point where kids as young as eight months are expected to have impeccable high-chair manners. They are to be discouraged from playing with their food, making a mess, throwing food on the floor, or rubbing it in their hair. This discouragement is often physical, in the form of squeezing a child's hand or swatting him. Based on the way my own toddler eats, I'd imagine it is an uphill battle for parents to get their children to behave the way they "ought" to at meal times.

So, Babywise condones parents hitting their children as a form of discipline?

Yes, but only in "appropriate" ways. While information in the more secularly-oriented Babywise series doesn't go into much detail on how to spank, the more openly fundamentalist Growing Kids God's Way (which Ezzo also wrote and published, previously to Babywise) has more specific instructions. Starting when the child is 14 months old, the parent should use "a somewhat flexible instrument (that) stings without inflicting bone or muscle damage…if there is no pain, then the instrument is probably too light or too flexible." Pain is the natural outcome of bad behavior and the parent must induce pain to ensure that the child understands this life lesson.

This belief is contrary to virtually any advice given by experts in the field of child care or child psychology. Physical punishment like spanking more often than not leads to angry, troubled children. The short term, fear-based improvement in behavior can lead to more serious behavioral problems down the road.

Is everyone who follows Ezzo's advice abusing their children?

Not at all. As with attachment parenting, most people who read these books do not follow Ezzo's advice to the letter. Many people (myself included) feel that the parent should be in charge of the child's schedule concerning eating and sleeping, at least after the baby has grown out of the feeding-around-the-clock stage. And a lot of parents, especially when harried and worn-out, have let loose with the occasional swat or firm grab of a misbehaving child. This is by no means effective behavioral management, but it is a far cry from actual child abuse.

However, those who are already inclined to hurt children may see Ezzo's books as justification for their violent tendencies. Instead of feeling guilty for losing their tempers, they feel vindicated and, in some cases, holy. There is also the problem of the insecure parent who trusts Ezzo's advice over their own experiences. I imagine a young Christian first-time mother trying to ignore a wailing child, crying because she believes something must be wrong with either her child or her. This is a tragic yet plausible outcome of committing fully to Babywise.

I realize this isn't the most topical post--after all, Babywise was denounced in 1997 in a "letter of concern" to the AAP signed by approximately 100 health-care providers. Since then, it has fallen out of mainstream popularity. But I think the damage from Babywise is still being felt by parents who attempt to structure their child's eating or sleeping habits, especially when other parents are so quick to label something as abusive.


  1. "The way things ought to be" = nail on head. There is no magic solution for raising a perfect child. Sometimes you have to let them cry and sometimes you have to hold them close. It's such a personal dynamic. But I think both extremes (attachment & babywize) are a disservice to both parent - who has to be hyper vigilant - and child - who has to be hyper obsessed over.

    My cousin is a humorous example. She and her husband have a 20 month old. While they are very crunchy, all natural, still breastfeeding, they are also very educated (they run a school) and come form the school of "I can guide this child the correct way."

    They always compliment me & my husband on how we raise our kids (Lord knows why - ha ha) because we're fairly free and easy with them intellectually and creatively but we have firm boundaries in regards to their behavior at the same time. We are super affectionate and huggy and snuggly, but in NO WAY attached. (I personally like them independent)We do spank on occasion, but only in a certain way and under certain terms that they clearly understand. We're not the greatest, but we do our best.

    Anyway, she is telling me that her husband's nieces and nephews are AWFUL. They are 6 and 4 and... STILL THROW TANTRUMS. Can you believe it?

    HA HA HA! I looked at her and nodded, "Yes. Yes they do."

    Later on, the husband was embarrassed that the little girl was too "clingy". When she'd toddle up to him and reach her little arms up, he would say "I don't know WHY she's like this tonight..." And refuse to pick her up. She had to learn, afterall.

    Learn what? I don't know. That when you are little and in a big room with a bunch of strange people you've never met (or met once - they live in another country) that Daddy won't comfort you?

    I would've scooped her up myself, but I had an awful respiratory virus.

    Tao wrap this rambler up, I think that when parenting becomes a strict culture or a lifestyle, as opposed to just another part of who you are and what you do... it gets goofy.

  2. The Worst of All Bad Habits:

    Schoolchildrens' "spanking" related injuries (WARNING - These images may be deeply disturbing to some viewers. Do not open this page if children are present).

    Reasonable and moderate? You decide.
    (WARNING - This sound recording may be deeply disturbing to some listeners. Do not open this file if children are within listening range).

    Recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson

    by Lesli Taylor MD and Adah Maurer PhD

    Most current research:

    Spanking Kids Increases Risk of Sexual Problems

    Use of Spanking for 3-Year-Old Children and Associated Intimate Partner Aggression or Violence

    Spanking Can Make Children More Aggressive Later

    Children Who Are Spanked Have Lower IQs