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Raising a happy baby

happy baby

Professor Dieter Wolke is based at the Department of Psychology and the Division of Mental Health & Wellbeing at Warwick Medical School. His main research interests include pathways leading to developmental psychopathology; social and emotional development; the development of biological at risk children and infant regulatory problems. Here he talks to Rachael Gill about what his research has taught him about child development and how those findings can be applied by any parent.

My research focuses on three areas of child development.”

First: I am interested in early infant regulatory issues which are problems with crying, eating and sleeping. I am trying to find out why some babies cry more or don’t sleep as well, and whether this has any relationship to parenting. I am also interested in children who are born at the limits of viability (very preterm children) and in the influence that parents and experiences at home have when children go to school and begin to develop peer relationships.

So are problems in infancy such as crying or eating down to nature or nurture?
It is a little bit of both. A baby who cries a lot and is less sociable will spend more time with the parent, less time being held by others and less time ‘socialising’. So in this sense, the baby creates its own environment which then changes the style of parenting. The illusion that parents are educating their children can be false – in many ways the child is also educating and changing the parent! This becomes more obvious once you have two or three children, and you realise that even within the same home and the same care and attention, siblings can turn out to be very different.

Many of our alumni are parents; can you suggest any parenting tips or techniques?
One of the main lessons that can be learnt from my research is the idea of ‘tough love’ – a principle we all know and which has been often replicated in research. This involves being loving, warm and accepting towards your children in a demonstrable way. On the other hand, it is vitally important to have rules and boundaries and to have clear consequences for the breaking of these rules. These boundaries give children security rather than being a cage restricting them. Achieving this balance gives children the greatest chance of developing into balanced individuals who form successful relationships and are able to develop coping strategies for life.

And how can a parent get their baby to sleep through the night?
After around six to nine months a baby is biologically able to sleep at night without waking for feeds. However, by this point some have learnt that crying is a good way to get mum or dad’s attention all for themselves. Most parents would find it very difficult to leave their child to cry, so this is where something called the ‘checking procedure’ can be useful. You go in the first time after 10 minutes. Don’t touch the baby or turn the light on, just say ‘go to sleep, it’s time to sleep, mum and dad are here’ then repeat this after 20 minutes, then 30, etc., eventually fading out. The waking will reduce over a week. Whatever you do, if you give in it is going to make it worse. Thus be sure you can commit to it.

Another strategy is ‘scheduled awakening’. If your child wakes up at regular, predictable times during the night, I would recommend waking them 15 minutes before this time. This gives the parent back control and after about two weeks they should find that this enables the child to fall into a new sleeping pattern without any waking.

What effect do older siblings have on the psychological development of young children?
Children ‘catch’ behaviours from their brothers and sisters. One particularly interesting aspect of this is ‘theory of mind’, which is where children begin to understand other people’s intentions. This usually happens in the second or third year, but younger siblings are able to do this earlier because they have been manipulated and engaged with in their early years by their brothers and sisters.

Older siblings can be important in providing support and stability, as well as a good measure of competition. This can cause problems if taken to the extreme, and this is where the importance of good parenting, and clear, fair rules and guidelines becomes apparent.”

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for parents today?
We should be very clear here what the ultimate aim of parenting is. If you can release a child at a certain age that is competent, self-effective, who can regulate themselves and who is motivated to find their own way in life, that is one of the most successful outcomes a parent can have. One has to look at the long-term aims
rather than short term ones.

Parents generally face a major challenge from the multitude of contradictory advice aimed at them, much of which is not written by people with any scientific background. This can be very confusing and can inhibit parents from trusting their intuition. The most important principle is: look at your child, be a good observer, find out what they like or don’t like, find out what works for them, and be loving but also set clear boundaries because it gives your child security.

You can find out more about Dieter’s work with pre-term babies on the Warwick Knowledge Centre website.


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