About to Give Birth and Already Sick of the “Pay More Attention to Your Baby!” Guilt

Readers iyhsaysyhn
— Parenting norms seem to reflect so much about society and so little about what kids really need — as evidenced by the fact that the norms are so different across eras and the globe. Glad this mom-to-be get that!

I am 9 months pregnant with my first child and Free Range Kids has been such a tremendous antidote to the avalanche of unsolicited parenting advice I’m getting as a soon-to-be-mom! I often find myself clamming up in social situations when child-rearing conversations get underway.

This cropped up in my Facebook feed today, and I think it’s largely because of Free-Range Kids that I can look at it critically rather than just feel chastened and potentially inadequate by it:

More than with the study itself, my problem is with the packaging and messaging. First off, this study was initially conducted 40 years ago, when perhaps the prevailing wisdom was that children this small weren’t participating socially. That obviously isn’t the case today… so, why bring it back up in the first place? Why resurrect this topic that we’ve clearly put to bed, in our culture of round-the-clock stimulation for infants and Baby Einstein? 

Secondly, this child is obviously NOT “neglected.” At worst, her immediate desire to be acknowledged is threatened for maybe 60 seconds. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether this is a child used to being interacted with by 2014 standards and, therefore, maybe more likely to react when Mom momentarily doesn’t meet her needs than the kid from 40 years ago, this use of the term “neglect” seems really irresponsible to me.

She’s two feet away, making eye contact with her child, who is plainly well-bathed, well-fed, and basically happy. Seriously, one minute of mere eye contact rather than sing-songy hyper-attention to one’s facial expressions constitutes neglect? Heaven forbid this mom should ever have to take a shower, or prepare a meal or a budget report.

Is it important to call attention to the positive impact of interaction with your kids, and to try to reduce instances of neglect, abandonment, etc.? Duh. But the audience here isn’t people who are unequipped with the resources to raise happy and well-balanced children; it’s people who are already likely to visit a website called Parent Society.  

It’s stuff like this that ends up convincing parents who are already hell-bent on doing a good job (and, in fact, are doing it) that they’re damaging their kids by not being totally absorbed in their development 24/7. 

This angers me not least of all as a feminist, because overwhelmingly the responsibility to be perpetually “on” falls on mothers. Being held responsible for this level of input with one’s infant leaves literally no time to develop a life as an individual with needs independent of one’s child’s.

Anyway. Thanks for your incredible website. — Jessica, future Free-Range parent

Lenore here: I agree — the experiment seems to equate true neglect with a few moments of less-than-full-bore interaction. So what it is it (and the website) trying to say? Don’t abandon your child for days in front of a TV set with only crack to eat? Or don’t turn your head away for one minute when you can’t stand another round of peek-a-boo? Way to drive parents nuts! 

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48 Responses to About to Give Birth and Already Sick of the “Pay More Attention to Your Baby!” Guilt

  1. Maribel October 10, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Lenore, maternal depression is very real. I think even middle class parents who might visit this site can still suffer from depression and therefore, fail to interact with their baby which can have serious negative consequences. This may be an issue for the OB/GYN or the pediatrician to raise with new moms. Most mentally healthy moms will naturally coo at their babies. The other problem is when a sibling or paid person is the caretaker – they may change the diaper but not coo and smile at the baby. My biggest concern is when I see babies, I mean babies, who have screens in front of their faces instead of people talking.

  2. Powers October 10, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    Both of you are misinterpreting the intent and actuality of this experiment.

    What is going on in this experiment (and how the mother keeps that stone face I have no idea) is not that the mother is off doing something else and leaving the baby to fend for itself. It’s that the mother is present and paying attention to the baby but giving absolutely no reaction whatsoever. It’s presenting the baby with a clear opportunity for human interaction but withholding the actual interaction.

    No one is claiming that the caregiver must be hyper-interactive with a child at all times. What the experiment shows is that babies are extremely sensitive to these social cues — and that it’s not just /attention/ they crave but actual /interaction/.

  3. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Besides what Jessica points out, staring at your kid without interacting is not normal, and has got to be a lot more disturbing for the kid than just going about your business. How can they measure the effect of natural behavior (not paying attention to the baby for a while as you do something else) by having the subjects engage in unnatural behavior (having a mother stare blankly at a baby without breaking eye contact)? The most you can derive from this is that mothers with psychological issues that create a flat affect might negatively affect their babies. You can’t really tell from this how going about your own business affects the baby, let alone how much attention diversion is necessary before it constitutes “neglect.” If that passes for an actually approved study, that’s pathetic.

  4. Gary October 10, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    “Besides what Jessica points out, staring at your kid without interacting is not normal, and has got to be a lot more disturbing for the kid than just going about your business.”

    My son is 3 and my daughter 2 and I do this with them. It begins with a stare but ends up with one or both making ridiculous faces, giggling, coming up and hugging me or yanking on my beard like the old pull chain toilets and then we all start laughing like, well, like children.

  5. Silver Fang October 10, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    Kids can survive without 24/7 interaction.

  6. Coccinelle October 10, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    I’m pretty sure it’s evolutionary for mothers to coo at their babies. It makes me think about the documentary Babies. I was actually blown away by how much a baby that is not babied can accomplish. Human intelligence is truly fascinating.

  7. alohamom October 10, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    I totally agree with pentamom. There is so much more in play here than visual cues. Purposefully behaving outside of a natural flow proves nothing.

  8. anonymous mom October 10, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    I’d go as far as to say that even a few days abandoned in front of the TV with a box of crackers is probably not going to do any harm, assuming it’s not the norm. (My three oldest had a few TV-and-graham-cracker days at the end of my pregnancy this summer. They have lived to tell about it. In fact, I think those were their favorite days this summer.)

    To some extent, I think this is another one of those studies that was designed around behavior present in extremely impoverished or otherwise troubled households and then pretending it applies to the average household. There is some evidence that, among those living in extreme poverty, basically ignoring the social needs of children is common. Children are just not really interacted with socially at all until they are older. And I assume studies like this were intended to address that.

    But that’s simply not an issue in most homes. The way most parents naturally interact with their infant is completely sufficient for social and intellectual development. No special training or instructions are needed.

    My youngest is 2-1/2 months old. My 3 and 4 year old kids, absent any training in how to relate to babies other than watching my husband and I, know how to interact with her. They smile at her and watch her smile back. They tickle her to make her laugh. When she coos at them, they talk back to her as if she’d said something that actually made sense. And then, after a few minutes of that, they go do something else, which is good, because that’s about when she starts to get a little overstimulated.

    Most people, even very young children, are perfectly capable of interacting with babies in ways that lead to appropriate social development. All studies like this do, when presented to the public as relevant to the average parent (instead of relevant to health care providers and educators who might be dealing with parents in extreme poverty or suffering from mental illnesses that keep them from interacting with their babies at all) is make them feel like their natural interactions with their baby are not enough, which is just not true and which is just going to lead to unnecessary anxiety.

  9. Warren October 10, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    George Carlin put it best. “You want to help your kids? Leave them the F— alone.”

    Which he did not intend for parents to just actually physically leave them alone. It was more about over thinking, over analyzing, over protecting and so on.

    Raising kids into adulthood is not rocket science, nor science at all. If you are a good person, and then by extension a good parent, just do what you feel is natural and good. Go with your gut.

  10. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    Gary, sure, as a game. But even then, it works as a game, because it IS kind of weird for the kid, and then ends with a laugh. If you actually did that because that’s how you interacted with your kid, that would be abnormal.

  11. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    Right on, anonymous mom. All my kids except my youngest suffered some of that kind of “neglect” because my pregnancies were always difficult — not risky, but a lot of sick and helpless. And their social behavior is all different, but all well within the range of normal.

  12. Gina October 10, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    Warren: WOW! I actually agree with every word you (and George Carlin) said.
    I interact with my kids the same way I interact with everyone. There is no special interaction time. It just happens naturally. And I rarely play. That is not part of my job description.

  13. BL October 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    “sing-songy hyper-attention”

    You shouldn’t be be talking so-called baby-talk (“sing-songy”) to them anyway. Just speak normally.

  14. EricS October 10, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    One also has to look at this in a different perspective. As the studies say, children at a very young age, are very acute to what is going on around them. So not only do they notice and react to negative visual queues from the mother, they will also likely pickup on their emotions as well. Which includes fear, and apprehension. Over time, this becomes a normal thing for them. So if the parents fear all the time, the child will potentially learn to fear as well. The parents have already set up their child to fail from the start.

    I do agree with many that you do need to interact positively with your child. But you don’t need to be attentive 24/7. And you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t pay attention to them all the time. As much as they need interaction, they also need to learn to cope when they don’t. It’s a balancing act that is required for a mentally and emotionally healthy child. Too much attention, they learn “give me, give me, give me”. Too little attention, they learn disconnect and emotional distancing. We all have to keep in mind, this isn’t about us. The day we have children, is the day where it becomes little about us, and all about them. What is best for THEM. Not us, or society. Stop listening to people, and trust your natural maternal and paternal instincts. If you take the fear, paranoia, and doubts that society instills in you about raising your children, I’m pretty sure you will do the right things for your child. They aren’t as fragile as many make them out to be.

  15. EricS October 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Agreed Warren. The human species has evolved and survived because of one simple thing, ADAPTABILITY. We are genetically rigged to ADAPT. That is our natural state. This is how we learn, and grow as human beings. When we impede that adaptation, by doing EVERYTHING for our children, and catering to their every whim, we recondition them to adapt incorrectly. ie. spoiled kids. kids who can’t fend for themselves. kids who constantly look to their parents for everything.

    If we don’t “pay attention” to them, they WILL adapt. One way of this, they make their own fun when they have no one to play with. Some kids make up imaginary friends. Some want to get out there sooner than others. Some make more initiative to make friends. That’s them adapting to their environment. When we balance our interaction with them. They learn that somethings they need to do on their own. But know they aren’t being neglected, or unloved.

  16. JKP October 10, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    BL – Actually recent research shows that the “baby talk” that most people naturally use with babies actually helps them learn language faster than talking to them normally (Although they’ll still learn language without the baby talk too). Just shows that the natural instincts that people have had for centuries turns out to be right.
    http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20050316/baby-talk-may-help-infants-learn-faster

  17. Buffy October 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Maybe I’m missing something but what does this have to do with depression, and who said it wasn’t real?

  18. Havva October 10, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    Okay, I actually found that sort of informative. But only with the context of personal experience.
    I had a long exhausted and probably depressed phase. In my screwed up mental state I thought my baby hated me. She would reach for me and cry at me, and basically act like the baby when the mom had the stone face. Watching the video it is obvious why that face is distressing. But when it was me, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Of course I felt half dead and couldn’t muster any emotion. So I was the stone face mom. When we straightened out our sleep problems, I started interacting normally and things got better. (She is a little hyperemotional but loving, intelligent, and sociable, even after a year of that. Thank heaven for other loving adults.)

    So while this is informative in some ways. It isn’t really helpfull. To fix our stone faced mom problem, we had to put our daughter second, and “selfishly” make her sleep habits conform to her mom’s needs. But all these things about the needs of babies have no respect for how critical the parental wellbeing is to a child’s wellbeing. Even on cars like this where they point out the

  19. Havva October 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    Okay, I actually found that sort of informative. But only with the context of personal experience.
    I had a long exhausted and probably depressed phase. In my screwed up mental state I thought my baby hated me. She would reach for me and cry at me, and basically act like the baby when the mom had the stone face. Watching the video it is obvious why that face is distressing. But when it was me, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Of course I felt half dead and couldn’t muster any emotion. So I was the stone face mom. When we straightened out our sleep problems, I started interacting normally and things got better. (She is a little hyperemotional but loving, intelligent, and sociable, even after a year of that. Thank heaven for other loving adults.)

    So while this is informative in some ways. It isn’t really helpfull. To fix our stone faced mom problem, we had to put our daughter second, and “selfishly” make her sleep habits conform to her mom’s needs. But all these things about the needs of babies have no respect for how critical the parental wellbeing is to a child’s wellbeing. Even in cases like this where they point out the child’s rapid recovery, they fail to explain the relaxant context with sympathy.

  20. Havva October 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Sorry about the double post and errors. Phones are not great for posting.

  21. Julie October 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    I didn’t watch this and take from it that we must always interact with our babies or else it constitutes neglect. I thought it was more about how the baby responded to her attempts at interaction being ignored. Few parents have the time or inclination to always be fully engaged with their babies and I don’t think babies want or need us to anyway. However in this instance the mother was engaged with her and then suddenly stopped and I found the baby’s reaction to that fascinating. It was like she was saying “hang on a minute I’m not finished yet”. As a free range parent I find something like this reinforces how well babies and children are able to get their needs met. It shows that we don’t have to hang around our children pandering to heir every need because from a very early age they are more than capable of letting us know when they need us.
    It’s not comparable to ignoring them for a few moments whilst we do a chore or use the bathroom because in those instances we’re likely to still interact with them (by calling through to them or chatting whilst we work. Most parents will respond to their babies attempts at interaction and in my opinion it’s doing this that helps them move towards independence and become truly free range.

  22. Tim October 10, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I find it hard to believe that in 1974 people thought babies didn’t interact socially. I don’t think they thought that in 1874 either. Scientists may not have known because they hadn’t studied it, but I’m sure everyone else knew.

  23. Reziac October 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    This is the most invalid “study” I’ve ever seen. If you stare unreacting at any kid, adult (including a total stranger), dog, or even a cat, you’re likely to get a stressed reaction: “What on earth is WRONG with you?” This proves only that it’s normal to react with stress to a person acting abnormally. It says nothing whatever about how much “interacting” you must do with your child.

    As to post-partum depression and inability to relate to one’s new infant, all the evidence I’ve seen indicates that this is caused solely by the abrupt drop in progesterone — essentially it’s withdrawal symptoms from the hormone that has dominated your body for the last 9 months. Treat the symptoms with progesterone (and reduce the dosage gradually) to replace what the body is suddenly no longer making, and the problem goes away.

  24. Sarah October 10, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    It seems weird that they would do this kind of experiment on babies around a year old. I would think by the time a baby is a year old there would be no question about whether or not the baby understands facial cues. It would make more sense to do it on much younger babies. By a year old, of course they are going to react like that!

    I didn’t really see it as telling us to interact with our babies 24/7. It wasn’t saying the baby would react like that if the mom had gone to take a shower or make dinner or had just started talking in a regular adult voice. Staring stone-faced at your child like that is not normal, and of course a baby can recognize that.

  25. VictorianPuffball October 10, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    I agree with most of the commenters. This is more than just not interacting for a minute.

    Also that comment about why she’s angry as a feminist is really out of place.

  26. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    “You shouldn’t be be talking so-called baby-talk (“sing-songy”) to them anyway. Just speak normally.”

    There’s a place for both. The singy-songy stuff connotes intimacy and affection for a child. Normal talk should be the usual routine.

  27. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

    “You shouldn’t be be talking so-called baby-talk (“sing-songy”) to them anyway. Just speak normally.”

    Both have their place. Cuddling, playing, talking baby-talk, connotes intimacy. Normal day to day action should be normal.

  28. pentamom October 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Sorry for the double post, too. Something’s wonky today.

  29. hancock October 10, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    The video seems to be a short segment of a larger production, but if I take it at exactly face value with no other context whatsoever, I can conclude that being perpetually stoned and staring unresponsively and blank faced at a baby all day, every day, might be unhealthy for early childhood development purposes

  30. Donald October 10, 2014 at 8:05 pm #

    …..I think it’s largely because of Free-Range Kids that I can look at it critically rather than just feel chastened and potentially inadequate by it….

    Lenore is helping to reverse the cycle. The reason why we have stuff like this is BECAUSE the authors themselves feel insecure. As with all bullies, pushing others down and making yourself superior will give yourself a quick but temporary fix against an inferiority complex.

  31. Donald October 10, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    …..I think it’s largely because of Free-Range Kids that I can look at it critically rather than just feel chastened and potentially inadequate by it…..

    Lenore is helping to reverse this cycle. The reason why we have stuff like this is BECAUSE the authors themselves feel inadequate. As with all bullies, making yourself superior and putting others down will give a quick but temporary fix against insecurity. We have an abundance of ‘experts’ because we also have such a demand for them I.E. “I need an expert to advise me because I don’t have confidence in myself to raise a child.”

  32. hineata October 11, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    No, Donald, I think we have a bunch of experts because a/ we often live apart from our extended families, and/or b/ even if we do live close to our families, the past forty or so years seems to have been about society telling us not to respect our elders (IMHO!). A left-over of the Sixties, which was itself a reaction to two world wars and the Depression, which led to a breakdown of trust in authority, which led to…..yada, yada, yada. :-).

    The world’s a mess. How do I climb off?

    But seriously, I agree with Pentamom – the stone face is abnormal. I wonder how babies would react if we actually suspended them in front of statues for a certain period each day? Would they be damaged for life, or become remakes of Michelangelo? Anyone willing to stump up the cash for me to try this ‘experiment’? About as much use as the one in the video….

  33. baby-paramedic October 11, 2014 at 2:52 am #

    So purely for amusement I decided to do this to my friend.
    Her reaction essentially was… trying to get a reaction from talking to me, then waving her hands about, touching me (all in rapid succession), asking me what the hell was wrong, then start assessing me for a stroke and threatening me if I was messing with her.

    Yeah, I think all this shows is stone-face is flippin abnormal and that babies can recognize that.

  34. Lexis @ Babystuff.tips October 11, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    It seems ridiculous that parent’s need to be “on” all the time. How will the children ever learn how to amuse themselves? Interaction 24/7 will just create a generation of attention seeking adults who base their self-worth on others opinions.

  35. lollipoplover October 11, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    As a baby (the youngest of 10) I KNOW I spent most of my days in a very large playpen. This is just one more of those “You’re doing it wrong” studies that make you feel terrible for painting your toenails while your baby happily plays by herself with the toe separator thingy. Parents need to get stuff done. They shouldn’t be watching videos like this one that portray neglect as inattention. Some children (2 of mine) didn’t like constant hyper-interaction, they’d get annoyed(especially at my singing) and wanted to play with their toys. They need their own time and did so even as babies. My mother taught me not to make a happy child happier and it’s always been good advise.

    The stone face is a creepy, Cybil-type mommy look and would freak out any child. They should have done it when mommy was checking emails or texts to test for *neglect*. Or a shower. Sheesh.

  36. caveat October 12, 2014 at 1:30 am #

    Anybody, baby or not, would be creeped out by someone staring blankly at them from a few feet away and refusing to respond to any communication attempts.
    Headline: “Scientists find that acting creepy to babies, creeps babies out!”

  37. Kay October 12, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    I’m just so tired of everything we do with or for our child to be over-thought, analyzed, and dissected. Doesn’t everyone know by now the enriching, neuron stimulating activity of patty-cake? If you don’t, then it’s not purposeful and you’re a terrible parent!

  38. lihtox October 12, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    And that’s the point of the study, I think. It’s interesting that babies recognize creepy behavior! 🙂

  39. ECB October 12, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    I don’t think that this experiment was ever intended to make parents feel guilty for not being completely engaged with their babies 24/7. It’s simply showing the effect that going to the other extreme of complete noninteraction can have on a baby. The original poster talks about neglect. The child in that video, who was otherwise healthy and happy, was subjected to maybe two minutes of emotional “neglect”. In those two minutes, the baby clearly became stressed out. Now imagine a child who is genuinely a victim of emotional neglect. Do you think he or she is going to grow up to be well-adjusted?

    Now obviously there’s a happy medium between these two scenarios. It’s called normal human interaction. The kind that parents and children have had for generations. The kind I’m assuming that a normal healthy adult would just naturally engage in with his/her child regardless of any studies.

    Also, does anyone else think that Lenore is being a little hypocritcal here? Her posts frequently point out the absurdity and illogic of worst-first thinking. Yet, the conclusion she immediately jumps to when watching this video is that these scientist are saying that only 24/7 hyperinteraction will do for your child and any mother who does less should be deeply ashamed of herself?

  40. SKL October 13, 2014 at 4:58 am #

    Funny thing – I just spent the whole weekend with my kids, mostly in the same room; we even slept in the same bed Saturday night at their request. (We were traveling and celebrating my kid’s birthday.) On Sunday we had 30 minutes between activities, and I was happy to let my kids go off to the arcade with my friends while I sat and relaxed. (I do not like arcades. At all.) My friend said, “why, don’t you like being with your kids?” :/ Gimme a break.

    I worry that constant stimulation is going to make kids stupider rather than smarter. When does the brain get time to review and try to make connections and recognize meaningful patterns etc.?

  41. SKL October 13, 2014 at 5:06 am #

    Of course the kid is going to get upset if his mother’s face is right there staring at him and not responding normally. That is a lot different from the mom going about her business while the baby does his own thing. The baby is smart enough to know there is something pathological about a mom staring at and not reacting at all to the communications of the person she’s staring at.

  42. CrazyCatLady October 13, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    I agree that kids are adaptable. Unfortunately, my niece and nephew went to a woman with a home daycare. (Daycare is not unfortunate in most cases.) The unfortunate part was that most of the kids were about 3-4 years old, and then there was my nephew, who was about 6 months old. When he arrived, he was usually asleep. The provider was putting him in a spare room to sleep in his car seat…and was leaving him there for the time that he was at the daycare. He was not getting changed until right before my sister came to get him. He was getting bad diaper rash, and more importantly, was not interacting with people and was behind developmentally. When at home, he interacted with Mom, Dad and sister.

    When my sister found out what was going on, I think she picked him up early, she was furious and changed him to an unlicensed grandma down the road who was watching her granddaughter of the same age. (1 by that time.) And…not only did the diaper rash clear up, but he also started walking, talking, and developing in a normal manner. After a couple of months, he was right where he should be.

    Granted, this was about 6 months, not years. But he is now a pretty normal kid who fights with his sister, rides bikes and plays games on his device.

  43. SKL October 13, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    And I agree, what is with the feminist comment? Moms who don’t view themselves as “feminists” don’t need any additional guilt either.

  44. hineata October 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    Does anyone think the reverse could be true? Do creepy, stone-faced kids freak their parents out, or drive their mums insane?

    Am getting the silent, stone-faced treatment from Creepy Psycho Misunderstood kid currently – which is preferable to Mouthy Psycho Misunderstood kid. I could actually get to enjoy it – was thinking of buying a couple of hook-type crowbars, hanging them from her shoulders and using her as a coat-rack. Or does spray-painting them with concrete make them more user-friendly?

    Has anyone tried this? 🙂

  45. Papilio October 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    @Hineata: Maybe you have some wet laundry that needs to dry? Could you get her to put out her arms and keep them horizontally? 😛

  46. Captain America October 15, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    OP: enjoy your child! I miss them days.

  47. hineata October 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    @Papilio – Brilliant! I could put her out in the garden while doing so – with her current facial expressions she could double as a scarecrow :-).

    BTW hope you are practising your rowing skills – mine suck, so I’ll need a tow!

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  1. Maggie's Farm - October 14, 2014

    Tuesday morning links

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