When I was a newborn mum the question was always ‘to routine or not to routine’. Around the same coffee table was my Zimbabwean pastor friend whose babies had to fall into the life of service and community - strapped to her back or cuddled by an aunt. Sleep happened when it was needed and food when it was demanded. Also sipping caffeine, was an expat American mum of 4 whose routine efficiency could be heard as she announced “I’m cutting Molly’s morning nap from 15 to 13 minutes this week”.
While I was figuring out just where I fell on the continuum, I discovered South African authors, Ann Richardson and Meg Faure, and a brilliant little book called BabySense about the effects of the sensory system on infant behaviour. Instead of fitting a child into a preconceived routine, or abandoning all sense of routine altogether; Faure and Richardson introduced the idea of reading the signals an infant sends about the state of their little bodies and responding accordingly.
My podcast guest this month on Wonderfully Wired, Dr Mona Delahooke, would call this parenting by serve and return. She has the same idea expanded into a beautiful model of parenting children, not as managing behaviours or enforcing compliance - (something you as a parent of a wonderfully wired child has long since known doesn’t work for our kids anyway).
I attended a lecture of Ann Richardson all those years ago in which she explained how easily an immature infant sensory system gets overloaded and how a baby has few
resources to self-regulate once she is overwrought. “At this point, the stressful input or stimuli simply exceeds the baby’s ability to compensate and calm down,” Richardson explained. Delahooke calls this an overdrawn body-budget - like an account well in the red.
I learned then, to read my sensitive baby’s signs, years before I would understand her to be wonderfully wired.
When she averted her eyes from contact I learnt she was nearing capacity.
When her alertness faded I understood the noise, smells and movement were getting too much.
When she started arching her little body, crying irritably, becoming pale or flushed, thrusting out her tongue, sneezing or hiccuping, I understood the message: don’t play with, wind or feed me! I’m going to blow!
Even more excitingly, I could detect signs earlier than this point of no return too. When Tim and I manage to read and respond by decreasing the stimulation and creating conditions for calm we could avoid a meltdown.
Such signs included:
Hands on her face or rubbing her eyes
A need for sucking
Clasping her foot
Bracing her body
Assuming the foetal position
Beginning to arch her little body
I was learning not to apply parenting theories to a child according to a formula but to study my particular little one and experiment with serve and return.
Who knew this philosophy could serve my older children too?
After reading Dr Delahooke’s work into the complicated nervous system, I can now see how that little body was unconsciously scanning inside with its built-in safety system: Neuroception it’s called.
This understanding could have been wildly useful for me had I not left it behind once we graduated from the toddler years.
That little baby who used to suck that dummy until it etched a ring of red around her mouth became a three year old whose sensitive heart and already overthinking brain would result in spectacularly reactive behaviour when daddy traveled. It was as-if she became undone within hours after him leaving. At the time I reached for literature on ‘the strong willed child’ but I wonder how differently I would see it now.
Was my daughter’s behaviour really wilful? Or was a gifted kiddo’s safety detection system sounding an accurate alarm for her particular brain and body.
She had no dummy anymore. (I was proud of that). But what self-regulation did she have available?
Delahooke suggests two responses when the safety detection system sounds the alarm
1. Address the threat: resolve or reduce it. I couldn’t bring Tim back then, but could I have understood that the other forms of stimulation and strain from loud sounds to funny smells added strain to that little body too.
2. Bring in cues of safety. When I felt pressure to call a timeout I could have applied Delahooke’s check in instead, checking on my own distress with compassion, reading my daughter’s behaviour as a barometer of her body-mind platform and then witnessed her distress and responded with a body-up response to restore her to calm. I could have worried less about ‘naughty’ habits and made some deposits into that body account instead.
We just celebrated 16 years of that little girl’s delicious company.
In those years we have learnt much about her, about the empathetic brain of a wonderfully wired kid and about the susceptibility to overwhelm and easily overdraw a body account.
Today I get to talk with her about her body account. Thanks to Delahooke’s work we know that an awareness of what withdraws and what deposits comes with maturity and a wonderfully wired teen who can communicate and advocate for their needs is one who can balance that account when needed. She’s so brave when it comes to figuring these things out!
I’ve decided not to judge past-me for the times when I thought good parenting was managing reactive behaviour. We don’t know what we don’t know, you and I.
Perfection, Delahooke assures us, is not the aim. Instead I see the early serve and return pattern of responsive parenting that learnt when a baby was ready for a nap. Today I am determined to keep reading this young woman, so alive to the world and so sensitive to what it offers. Serve and return. Learn. Adjust. Serve again.