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Do mothers need science to help them soothe a crying baby?

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You might have believed the old saying that “mother knows best.” But think again, it’s complete tosh—women don’t know anything about being a mother. If you want to know about mothering, ask a scientist.

As if to prove the point, a team of scientists has worked out the very best way to soothe a baby who’s crying in the night. Here’s what the clueless mother needs to do (and you might want to write this down):

  1. Pick up the crying baby
  2. Rock them in your arms
  3. Walk around a bit
  4. Put them back to bed

Crazy stuff, we know, and it goes against every instinct a mother might have. No, you don’t roll the baby down the stairs (a technique advocated by the parenting guru Dr Bank de Checker) or plunge them into a freezing cold bath. Or, come to that, shout at them through a megaphone, an idea championed by the eminent pediatrician Eyesenck de Titanic.

No, all wrong. Mind you, the team of scientists from the Riken Center for Brain Science in Japan wasn’t sure either until they assembled a group of 21 mothers and their newborns and ran a few soothing techniques up the proverbial maternal flagpole.1

The first big discovery is that the human baby is an altricial mammal; that means they can’t care for themselves, again quite a shock to anyone who thought a 5-month-old might pop down to the shops for some tea and milk. In fact, we’re as helpless as monkeys and mice. And dogs.

Altricial mammals are all comforted when they are picked up by their mothers and walked around for a while. But could the same be true for the human baby? Surely not.

Once we get our heads around the altricial bit, we cotton on that a crying baby isn’t going to nip downstairs and raid the fridge for some comforting midnight snack. No, it’s all down to you, mum (apparently men are not involved in this soothing business).

The scientists tested four different approaches, which, to the untrained eye, look remarkably similar. In the first, the mother picked up the baby and walked around the room (note: how many mothers think of that?). In the second, the mother held the baby but remained seated. The third approach was leaving the mewling brat in the crib to get on with it (see “Just Get Over It, Baby, and Move On” by Greta Expectations), and the fourth was leaving the baby in the crib but rocking it while they cried.

Apparently, the very best approach was to pick up the baby and walk around with them, but, whichever technique was used, all the babies in the study eventually stopped crying, and almost half of them fell asleep. And to demonstrate that this is proper science and not just some off-the-cuff advice, the optimum time is to hold and walk with the baby for five minutes. Exactly.

Lead researcher Kumi Koroda helpfully pointed out, “We intuitively parent and listen to other people’s advice on parenting without testing the methods with rigorous science. But we need science to understand a baby’s behaviors, because they’re much more complex and diverse than we thought.” She could have said we’re as complex as monkeys and mice. And dogs.

Yes, babies are complicated. As if to demonstrate the point, over a third of the babies started crying again the moment the mothers put them back in the crib, irrespective of the soothing technique that had been used.

Even Kumi was surprised by the results her experiment achieved, and she’s a mother of four. “I thought baby awoke during a laydown is related to how they’re put on the bed, such as their posture or the gentleness of the movement, but our experiment did not support these general assumptions.”

So there you have it. When Kumi had her mum hat on, she was useless. But the moment she did the day job in the laboratory, she saw with laser vision.

No wonder the research was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Those mums need it, and quick.

What do you think? Start a conversation over on the... WDDTY Community




Curr Biol, 2022; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.08.041

Article Topics: infant, mother, Parent, poor sleep
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