Despite calls to cancel the programme, Channel 4 in the UK aired a new documentary “Train Your Baby Like a Dog” on August 20. To give a brief synopsis of the show, parents were encouraged to shape their child’s behaviour by using dog training techniques such as using clicker training and giving treats to encourage and reward good behaviour.
Thankfully, some of the techniques used in the show were far gentler than its title and sound bites suggested, including not leaving young children to cry. But supporting a baby’s development requires far more than using positive reinforcement.
Babies and toddlers need loving support to help them understand and regulate their emotions and behaviour as they grow and learn. They can’t help their “challenging” behaviour – such as waking at night or crying. Babies only have so many ways of communicating and processing what is going on around them. And it’s really important that television shows like this recognise these normal needs, even if they are difficult for all involved.
Bringing up baby
No one particularly relishes another sleepless night or trying to soothe an inconsolable baby. But how to best deal with this? Well, evidence suggests that when parents are responsive to their child’s needs – by recognising when a child is tired and needs help sleeping, or is overwhelmed and needs help calming down – their children go on to have fewer behavioural problems, higher IQ scores and better social interactions with their peers.
When the needs of babies and children are met in a gentle way, they feel secure and develop confidence and self assurance. Meeting their needs with empathy appears to help them develop their own empathy and emotional intelligence.
Although praise is an important part of a child’s learning, it’s important to remember that dogs and children have different cognitive abilities. Children need to be able to understand their behaviour as they grow and learn or it can backfire once they’re no longer being rewarded. Using treats to shape behaviour may sometimes appear to work in the short term but pairing reward with treat foods can set children up to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, increasing their risk of obesity.
Some may dismiss the advice in this show as simply entertaining viewing, but the show’s title aligns with some popular baby and toddler care books which promote “training” babies out of normal behaviours. These suggest only feeding at set times, allowing your baby to cry without giving comfort and refusing to make eye contact if they wake at night. Not only does this fly in the face of research which supports responsive parenting, but the techniques they recommended discourage maternal behaviours that we know help keep babies safe and healthy.
In our research, we found that the advice given in these books prompted mothers to delay responding to their baby’s cries, which can increase levels of infant stress hormones. It also encouraged parents to put their baby to sleep in another room, against safe sleep guidance, and even spurred them to reduce how much they cuddled their baby.
Not only were these techniques harmful, but they only worked in getting infants to sleep around 15–20% of the time. When they didn’t work, mothers felt even more anxious and frustrated than before, with some saying that they felt like a failure. Mothers who used the guidance had higher levels of stress and depression.
Why do parents feel so stressed and isolated that they think using training techniques is a good idea? It says a lot about the pressures families are under today. Surely, a better solution to treating a baby like the family pet would be to teach parents the importance of responsive care and help them create the environment they need to do that?
Instead, parents are told not to meet their child’s normal emotional needs with love, but to treat them as an inconvenience that can be trained out of them.
This article was amended on August 23 2019 to clarify the content of the Channel 4 documentary How To Train Your Baby Like A Dog.
Amy Brown has previously received funding from the ESRC, NIHR and Public Health Wales. She is author of three books published by Pinter and Martin Ltd - 'Breastfeeding Uncovered: who really decides how we feed our babies', 'Why starting solids matters' and the 'The Positive Breastfeeding Book'.