Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Is solitary confinement for the little one a good thing?

Posted Nov 03, 2010

Did you know that putting people in solitary confinement is the worst punishment we can mete out (and the USA puts more of its citizens in solitary confinement than any country in history)? Spend much alone and you can become mad. The psyche breaks down.

Why is this? Thomas Lewis and colleagues point out that mammals, like us, need others to regulate our brains and bodies. We need others to feel right.  This is especially true for young children.

Remember Rene Spitz? He showed that young children left in hospitals for months on their own (except for food and diaper change) failed to thrive (he called it “hospitalism”). The children’s relationships with their parents were permanently impaired and the brain damage was done. You can see some disturbing film here.

No surprise, isolation leads to craziness in adults and physiological breakdown in kids. Not so sure?

Here is some evidence about what happens when a young offspring loses touch with a caregiver.

  • In babies, maternal touch regulates temperature and well being. For example, Luddington and colleagues (Ludington, 1980; Ludington-Hoe, Hadeed, & Anderson, 1991) have shown that a mother’s body temperature will automatically rise in skin-to-skin contact with an infant whose temperature is too low, going back to normal once the baby’s temperature is at a normal level.
  • When rat pups are taken away from their mothers for even a brief time, their physiological state changes to a ‘survival mode’ (summarized by Schanberg, 1995) which includes decrease in factors related to growth such as growth hormone release and DNA synthesis. Maternal touch stimulates normal growth through the mediation of Beta-endorphin.  All sorts of physiological functions break down and can become dangerously chaotic (respiratory, cardiac, endocrine, digestive, etc.). SIDS is a risk factor for babies who sleep alone (see this).
  • Schanberg and colleagues (Evoniuk, Kuhn, & Schanberg, 1979; Pauk, Kuhn, Field, & Shanberg, 1986) found that deep touch is important for growth (which they have mimicked with paint brushes) not movement, like rocking in a swing (although that is good too).

So there is a lot of data about the importance of touch, but what does that have to do with how parents might be treating babies like prisoners? Using playpens? Yes. Using carriers outside the car? Yes.

But mostly because they leave them alone at night. This is solitary confinement for babies. And can be destructive to the child’s developing brain.

Humans are the only mammals that separate their young from the mother. Not a good idea when you are born with only 25% of your brain and many miles of growing to go before you can adequately sleep on your own.  Americans are one of the few societies that have separate bedrooms for a child. It is considered cruel by many other cultures.

Depriving your child of you is like depriving them of love. It makes them ill.  It probably makes you ill too. Why cause all that illness? Sleep together in safe ways.

Atul Gawande, who wrote about prisoner solitary confinement, calls it torture. I think I agree with him. How can we do that to our children?