Object Permanence and Self-Soothing

A few months ago I began this post with: I am alone in the house. I am responsible, at this moment, for no-one but myself. It is wonderful. I’ve had a long shower, with no interruptions. I’ve scrubbed and flossed my teeth and rinsed using a mouth-wash – all at the same time. I’ve deep cleansed my face, and moisturised. I did all these things in a row.

Craig’s taken the boys to the playground. This might seem nothing out of the ordinary, but for us it is. He’s taken all three. For the first time.

We don’t push our children into independence. We allow them to become independent in their own time. For the highly-sensitive Owl it took much longer than it did for our more sociable Hare and Butterfly. Same needs and same parenting needed – different degree of need.

There is a concept called Object Permanence where children develop the ability to remember things exist even though they are out of sight. There is a bit of debate about when it develops, but generally it is thought to begin at around six months of age and to be completely in place some time between 18 and 24 months. Like walking and talking there are many natural variations and it doesn’t happen all at once.

The first sign that a child is developing Object Permanence is  their enjoyment of the game of peekaboo. If they don’t like it – they’re not ready. Peekaboo is like a stress-release game for children. (I’ll write more about stress-release and kids one day, promise.) They can’t see Mum (stress) they can see Mum (relief and release of stress by giggling).

Until then and up until Object Permanence is developed fully children are building an imaginary comforter (a picture of their Mum) in their brain. The degree they can truly manage to self-soothe when away from their Mums (after the age of 18-24 months) is exactly equal to how much comfort they receive from their Mums. From worst to best(biological statement not social statement) scenario:

1. If a child is rarely comforted much at all, doesn’t have a mother who can/will meet their emotional or physical needs in that first few years they develop unhealthy independence. They haven’t got a warm image of their mothers which they can draw on in times of stress. (Thankfully any constantly present warm and responsive adult can mitigate some of the effects – this is where a good-quality day-care may be a better place for a child than being at home.)

2. If a child has their physical needs met, but are trained to hide their emotions or to be independent they also develop unhealthy independence. Sleep training programmes like cry-it-out and controlled-crying are forms of independence training. These kids are often the ones who grow up to be the ‘mean girls’ or ‘cool boys’. They learn social faces early in life, but underneath it all they are sad/emotionally confused and this emerges in later behaviour as cattiness or other nastiness. They struggle to process their emotions. (A highly-sensitive child in this situation will end up feeling deeply sad.)

3. A child has their physical needs met, but Mum and Dad are push-me-pull-you parents. One day the child is allowed to sleep with Mum and Dad, the next they have to sleep alone. One day it is OK to cry when they fall over, the next day they are told not to cry. One day their parents don’t give in to their demands for toys or treats, the next day they do. These children will be over-protected in physically unsafe situations. Their image of their Mum is not of a constant carer, but an intermittent one. They are being trained not to trust themselves (’cause Mum can’t trust her decisions and shows it in her behaviour) and they are most likely to be clingy past the age of four and a half or five – regardless of temperament.

4. The child as a baby and toddler has a highly nurturing parent  who is responsive and warm, but no boundaries to their behaviour. The parent thinks they can do no wrong. This parent often thinks that unconditional love means accepting everything their child does is OK. ( I intend to blog more about this soon.) This child takes away a strong image of their mother as a comforting figure and will be able to quickly self-soothe (past 18 months) with separation. They may not deal well with another adult setting boundaries – to begin with.

5. The baby who has all their physical needs met and their emotional needs met by their Mum when she is able to be present and by a warm and responsive caregiver when she is not. This is particularly important for warm loving Mums who might chose to be at home with their children, but are not able to be due to financial constraints or they are aware their own emotional limits won’t let them be the parent they would like to be 24/7. Choosing a day-care with well (emotionally responsive) trained personnel or the nanny who has the right emotional connection with the child is what allows these kids to develop a warm and comforting image of their mother, which they can draw on in times of stress. It’s the constant (appropriate) responsivenss that gives these kids the chance to develop a healthy sense of emotional connection though Mum isn’t around all the time.

6. The ideal biological set-up for the child (our own emotional baggage can make this difficult for parents to manage) is a warm and responsive mother who picks up her baby when it is crying (if it’s not already on her body in a sling), assumes that crying is an attempt to communicate, plays with the baby quite a bit, ignores him/her (but may have him/her in a sling on her body) quite a bit, has excessive touch in the relationship, allows him/her to make and break eye-contact as they can and is rarely out of sight until the child chooses to move away from her. (There is more to great parenting, but these are the kinds of things which help develop this aspect of our children’s brains.) If these Mums put the washing-out or have a shower the baby is with them; if they go to the letterbox, they take the baby with them etc. If the child crawls away without prompting – that’s allowing independence.

Managing to be this constant a parent 24/7 for the first 18 months of our children’s lives is a big ask. Especially these days when women are pressured to do it all and have it all. In many circles it’s considered to be anti-feminist to be a full-on biological Mum.

I rationalised it like this: if I put in the time early (yes, there have been times I thought it was a prison sentence) then our kids would be less needy (emotionally or with bad behaviour) later.

I’ve got a good education and had a good career (thankyou suffragettes) and I have just finished my time making sure our kids were as emotionally secure as they could possibly be (OK we mucked up with Mr Hare, but he’s re-parented successfully now). Now I have no issue and no guilt about separating from the boys – if I need to go back to work, I will…knowing that all three of our boys, even Mr Butterfly at 20 months of age – have a warm and comforting image of me to draw on. They can truly self-soothe. They have Object Permanence.

Main References:

The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel

Becoming Attached, Robert Karen

The Emotional Brain, Joseph Le Doux

Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )

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About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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20 Responses to Object Permanence and Self-Soothing

  1. hakea says:

    I worked all through my boy’s infancy, and comp fed them. No problems apart from exhaustion on my part. For me, there was no choice, no maternity leave, had to work, it had to work out. I don’t agree that kids only need their mum when they are infants, but they do need extremely good quality care from consistent carers if mum has to work. And I had to do a lot of super nurturing when I was with them.

    The push-me-pull-you can happen too when parents are wracked with guilt and indecision about feeding and care choices, and don’t follow through for more than a week.

    • I put in the ‘have to work but can still nurture enough’ section because I know plenty of children who didn’t have their Mums during infancy but have done well (in attachment terms). Those needs are so intense that it is very hard work to meet them if the main care-giver isn’t present 24/7, so I stand by the ‘biology would like Mum to be the one’, but appreciate this is a biological ideal. And I totally agree with you on the push-me-pull-you group.

      • hakea says:

        A friend has decided that she needs to work whilst her children are young but flip-flops on the care issue. So there has been a lot of changing of care environments.

        Same with feeding. The young bloke would only breastfeed, and would not bottle feed whilst she was at work. So there’s been a lot of mucking around with no real commitment to any one strategy.

        I have to wonder whether her guilt and indecision has affected her ability, and thus the child’s, ability to cope?

        • I would think it would have. There is a lot of guilt around working for some women (even if they’ve chosen to) and, in my case, a lot of guilt in not earning too. If mothers don’t understand attachment and muck their kids about with care-givers, it has to impact on the children. Sadly, as you know from your study and work, recognising and addressing these kinds of patterns in ourselves is not an easy task. The temperament of the baby also factors of course.

  2. I love this post. It really made me feel good about the way I parent my kids. However, I feel horrible that I’ve had to go back to work 2 days a week. I’m only gone 5 hours but the separation feels like days to me and the housework and cuddle time afterward is 2fold. When I walk out the door, the baby (11 months) cries and reaches for me…its so hard to leave him. But I do know he’s fine and happy the rest of the time I’m away. And I know he has object permanence…he LOVES peekaboo and initiates it with me all the time.

    Thanks for explaining the biology behind it!

    • That separation anxiety can be a killer. I’m not surprised that you have to have extra cuddle time after your times away, it’s how it all works. But the reality is we have to pay the mortgage and feed the children – many women have to work these days. It’s making the best of the situation – that matters, and our kids get that when they’re emotionally well connected to their Mums. (Not to freak you out, but separation anxiety in well-attached kids is at it’s peak between 15 and 18 months – so something to look out for.)

  3. Laura Weldon says:

    Brilliant explanation. I was just talking to a new mother this week who believes that babies “manipulate” and need to be “taught” how to sleep. In addition to the books I lent her, I’ll be sending this post. Thank you so much.

    • You’re welcome. I’m pleased that all this will be useful to a first time Mum – it is such a minefield trying to work out where our conditioning/socialising ends and our instinct begins. The book ‘The Science of Parenting’ by Margot Sunderland might also be useful if the new Mum is an analytical/orderly sort of person.

  4. driftwoods says:

    Nice reminder for a mom who’s going back to work part-time (very temporarily) next week. I dread it, and my baby is so attached (as in, finds it hard to be left with others) to me, she’ll have a tough time. But, your post is a good reminder that I’ve set her up well in the attachment (as in “attachment parenting principles) department. It still aches, but, in my case is so short-term, I can hardly complain. Of course, that’s by choice, too. Your post is also a good validation of why I’m choosing to stay home with my kids for a little while longer. Here’s hoping our pocketbook can take the blow.

    • As someone who has a very small pocketbook now that I’ve been home (pretty well full-time) for 10 years – it is certainly worth it. Although, the cash to buy a few extras (like food LOL) would be good some weeks. 😉 Good luck with your short-term paid employment – expect a bit of extra clingy-ness during and afterwards, but all will be well. 🙂

  5. kaet says:

    This is an issue I’m thinking about again because we’re moving, so taking DD away from her familiar environment. It took her a good couple of weeks to get used to being with DH rather than me in the mornings (I’m doing an intensive language course, as I honestly believe that in the long-term it’ll be better for her to have a mother who really speaks the local language), and she has only once, for half an hour, been left with someone else (who she had met several times before). With the move I realise I’m going to have to be much more constantly in sight again for awhile. I can’t expect her current (and pretty new) level of comfort at sometimes continuing to play in the bedroom after she wakes up while I’m in the next room (on and off in view through the open door).

    On peekaboo – she loves it, but I usually let her control it. She sits by the shower curtain and pulls it around herself and when I ask where she is she’ll pull it aside (and/or poke her head around). She likes one or two instances if I’m controlling the hiding object, but we can play for 20 minutes if she’s in control. She’s just about 7mo. (Oh, and she’s in a supportive seat for this, not just in the bath.)

    • Hi again Kaet,
      I put information here for people to use in their real lives…we do have other pressures on us other than just parenting and I think you attending the language class is hugely beneficial too. If you can keep all of this in the back of your mind and adapt it to suit, that’s great. It’s the management of the separation and the reconnections which is important at all times, and particularly before Object Permanence is fully in place.

  6. Wolfmama says:

    “In many circles it’s considered to be anti-feminist to be a full-on biological Mum.” I am confronted with this belief a lot, with well-meanign people asking me when I will be going back to work or university (my son is only 14 months old) and seem uncomfortable when I tell them that my priority is my son and will be delaying that route for as long as he needs me to. The idea that having a baby ruins your life is prevalent in my culture and I find this train of thought to not only be erroneous, but damaging to our children if they are pushed into becoming independent before they are truly ready. I am proud to be able to say that I made some tough choices so that I can be present with my son in his early years, but not all women are motivated to do so because of social pressures. I hope this way of thinking changes by the time my daughters are of child-bearing age.

    • So great to hear from you! I have had exactly the same experience, especially since I have managed to stay (pretty well consistently) at home for 10 years now. We have an almost two year-old and I am still in no hurry to get back into the rat-race as I believe what I do is vital work. I am planning to write a post about this for World Moms Blog over the next few weeks, I’d love it if you could comment there when I do. 🙂

  7. Victoria says:

    Interesting post. I will have to go back to work wqhen DD is 12 months. Are there any resources you can suggest for attached working moms?

    • Hi Victoria,
      I can’t think of any resources off hand, but will have a think.
      I would expect that your DD will be more clingy over the 12 months from separation to around age two, especially around the 15 month stage. The more you can indulge her emotionally with Boring Cuddles (if you’re not sure what they are – there are plenty of posts here to help you out) when you are at home the better (bedsharing? lying with her when she goes to sleep?) – and (once you are satisfied she is comfortable with the setting and her carers will nuture her enough) leave quickly when you have to drop her off – would be my two bits of advice. Good luck.

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