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Don’t babies cry for a reason?

The power of working with natural systems, rather than against them

Raising my first child has been such a life changing and emotional experience. All of a sudden, we have this little baby boy that’s completely reliant on us for everything.

And I quickly found out that there is no such thing as a “newborn instruction manual”. Its just not that simple. There are heaps of different opinions out there on how to best raise a newborn baby. Sure we all know that breast feeding is best for the baby, but thats pretty much where the consistency stops.

A lot of the advice I came across is focused on gaining control of your baby’s feeds and sleep, with set rules, routines and schedules. A good example of this is an approach called cry-it-out sleep training. This usually involves letting your baby cry himself to sleep. This just didn’t feel right to me. I couldn’t imagine ignoring my baby’s cries. There is something about a new born baby cry that is deeply upsetting. It feels like a plea for help and it hits you in the pit of your stomach. Don’t babies cry for a reason?

Amongst all the information, I was so lucky to come across a book called “Discontented Baby” by Dr Pamela Douglas. It completely contradicted most of the advice I had read elsewhere, but made the most sense to me. The approach recommended in the book is based on being flexible and working with (rather than against) your baby’s biology early in life.

What does this mean in practice?

It means trusting your own instinct and trusting your baby’s cues.

Newborn babies don’t cry to make our lives a misery. They cry when there is something was wrong. And it’s natural for parents to have a strong reaction to that crying. Actually studies have shown our brains are hard-wired to respond strongly to the sound, because it activates primitive parts of the brain involved in fight-or-flight response. It’s an instinct that is hardwired into our DNA for a reason – and is not something to be ignored.

But often parents are told that its normal for newborn babies to cry a lot and not to worry about it.

Colic – Babies are often diagnosed with Colic which is a condition that causes babies to cry a lot. But as explained on webmd.com, Colic is a bit of a mystery. It’s often thought to relate to an upset digestive system, but its cause is unknown and there is no clear way to help it.

GERD – Another common diagnosis is gastro-oesophageal flux disease (GORD). But research shows that it’s normal for healthy babies to vomit frequently, with two-thirds of babies vomiting regularly. And milk reflux is pretty much pH neutral and certainly not acidic for the first couple of hours after a feed. It’s estimated that only 0.3% of babies warrant a GERD diagnosis. Yet up to 9% of babies receive a diagnosis of GERD.

Instead the coughing, gagging, back-arching and refusal to feed that is commonly attributed to Colic or GORD, is usually caused by underlying feeding problems.

You don’t have to ‘train’ your baby to sleep.

Almost no newborns sleep from 10 p.m to 6 a.m. every night, without disturbing their parents. It’s normal for babies to wake regularly during the night. And it takes time for babies to learn how to self-settle over the first year or two. These are biologically normal processes. The belief in and expectation of unbroken sleep has only come about in the last century or so. Hunter gatherer cultures would regularly get up at night and tend to the fire or respond to noises that could be threats. And history tells us that two-phase sleep was usual in the west up until the industrial revolution.

I think this quote from the book sums up the philosophy well:

“For the past six decades, health professionals have attempted to help new parents overcome worry and fatigue by encouraging them to ‘get back in control’ of the baby’s feeds and sleep. Of course, it’s very attractive to think that the complex messiness of life with a baby, let alone a crying baby, can be reduced to a set of rules. But when it comes to powers of nature, modern humans seem to be slow leaners. Forcing our will upon a dynamic system (like a mother and her baby) can turn out badly in the end because complex systems stabilise themselves through countless feedback loops. These are disrupted in unpredictable ways by simplistic strategies that intervene in just one aspect, resulting in unexpected outcomes. If we do manage to exert some sense of order upon the biology of a baby’s feeds and sleep through routines and the premature conditioning of behaviour, the changes are often not sustained over time, and may turn out to have some unpleasant, unexpected side-effects.”

Why do we make things hard for ourselves?

Following the advice of Dr Pamela Douglas has changed our life and has made the whole experience of being parents so much easier and happier.

It also made me sit back and think about how we often make things hard for ourselves – by working against natural systems (like our biology) rather than with them. Here are a couple more interesting examples:

Eating late at night makes you fat

Adele Davis was a popular nutritionist from the mid-20th, who was well-known for her advice to:

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”

This might explain the common perception that you’ll put on more weight if you eat a big meal at night. Somehow does the food you eat become more fattening at night? No – of course not! Our body is hard wired to trigger sleep after a big meal. Every meat eating mammal (such as lions and dogs) goes to sleep after a big meal. We should work with that and make life easy for ourselves. Here is a great article that breaks down this myth.

Swimming training should focus on building stronger strokes

It turns out that the average human swimmer is only 3 percent efficient in the water (based on a study by DARPA), because they are up against a force of nature called drag. This is compared to dolphins which are 80% efficient. Despite this, the usual approach to swimming training is to focus on building a stronger pull and a stronger kick. Instead, a smarter approach is to focus on improving swimming skills which reduces drag through the water. That’s why programs like Total Immersion Swimming, that focus on swimming skills, result in large improvements with only small changes.

The food system

There is no better example of how we work against natural systems, than our approach to food. The way we grow and produce food is destroying the environment and depleting the soil. And a lot of the food we’re eating is toxic to our body because it has been grown unnaturally with chemicals and then highly processed. As a result, food is making us sluggish and sick rather than healthy and energised.

Rather than change the way we farm or the way we eat, society has been busy with band aid solutions.

Dieting boom

Companies like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers have been pumping out diet programs that don’t provide any real long term solutions. They’re based on counting and restricting calories rather than making any real change to the way we eat.

On top of that, the nutritional advice from the government in the 1980’s and 1990’s (remember the food pyramid) was completely wrong and has made things way worse rather than better. Take a look at this graph, where you can clearly see the sharp increase in obesity rates after the low fat guidelines (food pyramid) was released. 

Fitness industry

Along side the dieting boom has come a boom in the fitness industry. We have been sold on the notion that exercise is the key to weight loss. And if its not working, the answer is to workout even harder and longer. 

GMOs

We’re trying to dig ourselves out of a hole by messing with our food systems even more, using more advanced science and technology. Genetically modified crops allow farmers to use more chemicals (herbicides) directly on the crops. And genetically modified animals are being developed to reduce their environmental impact – such as Enviro Pigs and Super Salmon

Medical and drug industry

While Agrochemical companies are busy finding more efficient ways to grow food using more chemicals, the medical industry is busy dealing with the aftermath, which is a rising cancer epidemic. As you can see from the graph below, rates of cancer have spiked dramatically from the 1950s, which is about the same time that we shifted to industrial agriculture and processed food.

With so many people getting sick, the medical and drug industries have responded with mind boggling advances in treatment. But all this treatment doesn’t come free. The United States spends $2.6 trillion, or about 18 percent of GDP on health care.

Food manifesto

What if… instead of band aid solutions or messing with genetics, we stepped back and looked at the root cause of the problem.

“Our food system is completely out of sync with the natural system it relies on”

What if…. we invested all our time and money to develop solutions that work with natural systems rather than against them.

In a post I wrote called the Food Manifesto, I suggest that the solution lies in 4 areas: 

Regenerative agriculture that restores and maintains natural systems like soil, water and biodiversity, to produce healthy and nutritious food.

Local / urban farming to produce seasonal food that is consumed close to where it’s grown.

Education and awareness to bring about a change in the mindset and behaviour of consumers.

A Whole Food diet which focuses on eating food with minimal processing and additives.  

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