Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hurray! The Baby's Crying!

I recently had an e-mail exchange with a friend. I began by saying “Hurray! When I walked up to my neighbor’s baby, he cried and turned away!” My friend answered, “That’s great!”

I looked at this correspondence and it suddenly struck me-- many people would think we were nuts to say such things. Are we people who enjoy being mean to babies? What could possess us to think it’s good when they cry? Well, there is method in our apparent madness.

I had been concerned about this particular baby, whose family lives on my street. When he was about 6 months old and was outdoors with his mother, I walked up and started a conversation. I noticed that the baby never looked at me and didn’t try to get our attention. But he did seem preoccupied with something he was looking at, so I thought perhaps I wasn’t very interesting in comparison. Then, several months later, I saw mother and baby outdoors again-- and the same thing happened. I recounted this to several colleagues at a meeting, and all expressed concern and asked whether the baby was in an early intervention program. They all felt I should talk to the mother about the matter--- although they conceded that she probably wouldn’t speak to me for two years if I did!

Thank goodness, a week or so later, when I walked up to the family, the little guy clouded up, began to whimper, and turned away from me to look at his parents. They were embarrassed that he was being “rude” to me, but I congratulated them on their good work and assured them that this was exactly what he should be doing.

What was going on here? Why do I think this infant should cry when he sees me-- or any other person who is not very familiar to him? I think so, because this changed behavior is an excellent marker of good development. Babies in the first months of life don’t “make strange”. They respond in about the same way to any smiling, sociable person. Somewhere around seven months the baby becomes wary and looks suspiciously and seriously at unfamiliar people, checking them out in the way Margaret Mahler labeled “customs inspection”. After inspecting a friendly-looking new person for a while, the baby warms up and gets sociable. By 8 or 9 months, most babies who have lived in a stable family or other care situation will respond to strangers with anxiety and do their best to turn away and look for or at their “own people”. A common scenario is that the mother is carrying the baby at the grocery store or other public place, and a friendly stranger approaches to talk to the baby. The baby turns away, puts his or her face against the mother, or moves to look to the mother’s other side. Friendly stranger knows what to do about this, and rushes around to look at the baby from the other direction! (Repeat ad lib until baby is bawling and mother is completely frustrated but trying to be polite to this person, who loves babies but doesn’t really think they’re people.)

These changes in the baby don’t occur because there have been bad experiences, or because the baby is spoiled and willful, or because of emotional disturbance. They are natural developments that take place in almost all babies who have had a normal basic level of adult care and social interaction, and they are good evidence that the baby is on a normal schedule of development. If a family baby of 9 months did not show reluctance to deal with a stranger, we would need to ask what the problem was; there might be difficulties with vision or hearing, or even with mental development in general. If a baby who had been cared for by many different people, or often moved from one care setting to another, and was friendly to everyone, we might well conclude that he or she needed to have a long period of consistent care from a few people, in order to have an opportunity to develop special relationships.

But why is it a good thing for babies to avoid strangers? It seems like a nuisance from a practical point of view. It means we can’t leave them with babysitters or at a new day care arrangement, without a whole lot of fuss. It means that people who care a lot about the baby but don’t see her often may be offended when the baby snubs them. What’s to like about it?

One good thing is that this situation acts to some extent like an “invisible playpen” and helps to keep babies near adults who care about them even when they’ve begun to crawl or walk. The safety factors that apply in modern times were probably even more important when our remote ancestors reared their children in wild and dangerous settings, and wandering away might lead to becoming a meal for a predator. In addition, though, treating familiar and unfamiliar people differently is a basic aspect of human behavior. A child who did not achieve the ability to do this would be a very odd person indeed and would not fit well into any human society. As a general rule, we give to and take from familiars and not strangers, we tell secrets to and trust familiars and not strangers, and we are more inclined to be sexually intimate with potential mates we are well acquainted with than those we have just met (twenty-something guys, I don’t want to hear about this-- it’s true of most people, anyway!). By about 9 months, babies have usually come to share these kinds of attitudes with the rest of their species.

If I ever designed a greeting card, I would make it one that said to young parents, “Congratulations! Your baby was afraid of a stranger today!”. That leap forward in development is far more significant than the first step or the first word, and it’s worth celebrating.

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