Hey there and welcome to today’s episode. I’m so thrilled to have my guest Anya Dunham who is going to share with us her research and the work that she does around the ecology of parenting and just what she has learned as a parent and as a scientist and I’m so happy to have you here. Thanks for joining me Anya.

Thank you for inviting me on the podcast and I’m very happy to be here. So my name is Anya Dunham and I am a scientist by day. I have a PhD in ecology and I study the way living things interact with one another and with their environment.

So that’s my day job. I’m also an author and a mom to three young kids. I have two kids in elementary school and a preschooler at home.

 My experience just before I became a parent, so that’s now just over 12 years ago, I did a lot of reading. I love reading and I read a lot of parenting books and I’ve already spent over 10 years in the lab and in the field doing research. And so I thought that I would prepare, that all would prepare myself for that experience of welcoming our baby.

And in many ways it did, but what I think I didn’t at the time realize is just how intense that sense of responsibility and the weight of that responsibility would feel once our daughter finally arrived and just how much we would feel like, oh my goodness, we actually do have a baby and how can we do the very, very best we can here for her and with her. And what I wasn’t totally ready for was that I didn’t have that immediate knowledge. It didn’t feel like I knew just exactly what to do, but I had that big desire to do the best I can.

 Yeah, I was thinking about it. It’s almost as if while we’re pregnant or as we are preparing to become a parent, it’s kind of like we’re training for a 5K and we start the race, but actually it’s one of those 100 mile runs, one of those ultra marathons and we’re prepared, but at the same time, there’s just so much more to it than we realize. And so I love your work.

 I love all of the fabulous information that you have out there on your website. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit, but let’s talk about first just this idea of maternal instinct. New parents hear about this instinct, this idea that you should just instinctively or instantly know what to do when your baby arrives.

 What can science tell us about that and what’s your experience with that? Yeah, it’s a really interesting question and I can really relate to your analogy of sort of a marathon versus a lot much longer run. And I think a lot of us feel that sense of, especially moms, once our baby’s here, we feel like, yeah, we must know something. We’re moms now, so I should have some sort of access to some immediate set of skills or knowledge that will be available to me once my baby’s here.

 And then it doesn’t happen, or at least it doesn’t happen in the same way that we might’ve imagined. And so what I did when my baby arrived is I started this long process because I couldn’t find the answers that I was looking for. I started looking into the research on child development and parenting.

And 10 years later, that became my book, Baby Ecology. It took 10 years and a lot of coffee at midnight when my whole family was asleep. And so 10 years and two babies later, my book was published.

 And so in the process, I read a lot of interesting studies that I think not very many parents know about. And so one of the findings that I thought was really helpful is understanding that maternal instinct is really a myth. It really doesn’t exist, or at least science hasn’t found any evidence of that immediate knowledge becoming available to us.

 But what does become available, what does sort of come online when we become parents, and that happens not only to mothers, but to fathers and other committed caregivers, is that caregiving drive, which is basically the want to do well and the desire to protect and to nurture our babies the best we can. So it makes us selfless and more caring and more empathetic and risk averse, which are all, they seem like good qualities to have for new parents and seasoned parents alike. But it doesn’t tell us just how to do our best.

 And that’s something we have to figure out ourselves because especially it doesn’t tell us how to do that with this particular unique new person that’s just entered our lives. Right. Right.

It doesn’t help at all in the middle of the night when the baby is screaming. And it seems as if they have everything they need. They should be happy, but they’re not.

 Yeah. And so I think what can help us there is giving ourselves that space and understanding that it’s okay not to know. It’s actually a good thing not to know, because it opens that space and permission for us to learn and to learn from this new person in front of us.

But it’s definitely hard to remember that in the middle of the night, where it can be hard. Right. So let’s get practical.

 Let’s say that there’s someone listening who’s got a 10 week old at home who is waking up and just unhappy. What would be the things that they could do to try to figure it out? Yeah. So another thing that science tells us that does exist is parent intuition.

 And that’s a very real, very kind of proven form of knowledge, because it has something to do with the way that our brains store and then retrieve information that we draw from perhaps past experiences, something we’ve learned, something we’ve read or experienced in our own past. And the reason we call it, we might call it a gut feeling or sixth sense is because it often comes immediately. It’s something that we just conjure up when there is an issue in front of us.

Like we might be holding a crying baby in the middle of the night and we might be thinking, yeah, like I’m pretty sure she’s gassy and she needs a better burp. Right. Things like that.

But we don’t necessarily know where that knowledge is coming from. And so one thing that we can try and do is to sort of strengthen our intuition and to give it room to grow in those early years. And the reason we sort of want to work on that is because where does the knowledge come from, that intuitive knowledge? It can come from several sources.

And one of them is our unique knowledge of our unique children in front of us. And that’s really great. It’s really the best source.

 Right. But then it could also come from biases or fads or some old disproven psychology and things that we really don’t want to be bringing into the equation, but it’s difficult to separate them in the moment. But the nice thing is that studies show that it is possible to separate our truly intuitive knowledge from those biases, fads or insignificant things.

 Our brains can do that by combining intuitive knowledge with evidence-based knowledge. And so if we learn about child development, about parenting from trusted sources, like trusted healthcare professionals and from solid scientific studies, then that can help us filter out the noise, the insignificant, unimportant, and sometimes even dangerous messages that we might be holding. Right.

 Yeah, that is really a great statement, you know, just that by arming yourself with this information, you are able to read through things that you know in your gut somehow. That can’t be true, but they say it is, you know, like that’s really interesting. What are some of the most harmful things that people have in their head that they need to filter out? Does anything come to mind? Yeah, you know, I think it could be a lot of things.

Like sometimes it’s something, the way that we were raised, I think sometimes what happens if we want to either repeat it exactly, because we feel happy and good about it, or sometimes we want to create an absolute opposite of the environment that we grew up in. And I think both can sometimes be if it’s just repeated as a sort of an unyielding pattern, like and we are sort of stuck in the thinking that we must do it a certain way. I think that can be very difficult on us and on our children.

 And then, of course, there’s a lot of just sort of misinformation, disinformation online that sometimes we see, and we might see it so many times that it becomes something that our brain might bring up in that moment as the truth. And it’s just because we’ve seen it so many times and happen to sort of internalize it. And so I think this idea of using both solid evidence and our intuition is really liberating in a sense, because it also doesn’t, it tells us that we don’t have to be either or we don’t have to choose to be science-based or intuitive parents. We can be both. We can be rooted in science and evidence and intuitive at the same time.

You know, I think probably one of the most fascinating things that we can do is just really observe our children, especially newborns and really little babies, but even all throughout childhood, just observing them and looking at them from this idea that they are a person separate and apart from us, even when they are so fully reliant and dependent on us. So can you talk about that a little bit, this, the whole idea of this mind-mindedness, you know, this way of looking at your child through that lens and maybe define that a little bit? Yeah, I think it’s such a helpful concept, but one that not again, not very many parents know about, but many do practice it intuitively, I think.

 And so mind-mindedness is a way of seeing babies as people with their own thoughts, feelings and ideas and emotions from the very, very start. And so instead of just looking at a tiny baby as this very, very cute little bundle of joy and need that we take care of, which is also of course true, but we see the person in front of us right away. And studies on mind-mindedness started about 25 or so years ago when this concept was first defined.

 And so now we know quite a lot about what happens when children grow up in mind-minded environments. And so it seems like there are a lot of benefits. So for example, babies whose parents are mind-minded with them, they show a better physiological capacity to regulate emotions.

 So it’s easier for them to stay calm or to return to a calm state after they’ve been upset. And then as toddlers, interestingly, it’s a bit easier. They have a little bit better self-control.

So it’s easier for them to be in typically challenging for toddler situations, such as waiting, for example, waiting for a treat or an experience. Interestingly, especially if their fathers are mind-minded, which is kind of an interesting finding. But of course, every family member and how they are with the children matters, of course.

 And then so then when these children grow into preschoolers, they tend to have, it’s a bit easier for them to interpret the needs and feelings of other people, which is also something that’s just challenging at that stage. And then finally, the longest study to date has looked at parents’ relationships with their preteens. And so parents who were mind-minded with their babies had higher likelihood of having a preteen.

And I’m going to read this out because I thought that this was a really great definition that they had. The author said it increased the chances of having a special, tension-free, trusting, and comfortable connection nine years later. And I thought that that was pretty huge.

 Having a preteen myself, I can really appreciate that. Wait a minute. Say those words again.What were those attributes? 

So being mind-minded with your baby increases the chances that you will have a special, tension-free, trusting, and comfortable connection nine years later. That is amazing. Yeah.

 And perhaps beyond because it’s just that that’s the longest study to date, but I think we might be finding out that that carries into teen years and adulthood as well. I’m pretty sure we will see that. I would expect that you would, because if you can be tension-free and trusting with your young adolescent, that right there is a really good reason to study mind-minded practice it in your home with your baby.

 That’s amazing research. You know, it reminds me so much of Magda Gerber’s work, and she is the founder of Rye, which many of you listening might be familiar with Rye. I actually studied her work whenever I was in college all those years ago, because she was pretty brand new then.

And one of the things that she suggests is that even from a very young age, when you’re changing your baby’s diaper, that you tell them what you’re doing as you do it, which is a really great practice, you know, to always talk to our children about what we’re doing as we do it. But she’ll say that we can ask the baby to raise up their bottom so that you can put the diaper underneath them. And what this does is it, to me, that’s a really great example of treating this baby as if they are another person who, even though they had their diaper changed so many times a day, they need to be a little bit in control of it and be a participant in the process. 

And it’s just such a respectful way to do a simple diaper change. You know, I’d like to put the dry diaper on. Can you lift up your bottom? Can you put your leg up so I can put the pants back on? And even at a very young age, babies are able to do that.

I just think it’s so interesting. Absolutely. I’m also quite influenced by Rai and Magda Gerber’s work.

I’ve started reading. I read her books just before my first child arrived, and it’s been very influential in sort of how we’ve done things at home. And then, you know, when I was reading about all the studies, one thing I found, one paper I found that immediately made me think of Magda Gerber’s work and teachings was when they showed that even a two-month-old can help us lift them up, but only if we approach them in a way that tells them what we’re about to do.

So if we are clearly visible, we’re extending our arms, and we’re telling them maybe and making eye contact that they can tense their body and sort of prepare for that action of being lifted so that they can be participants in their own routine from a really, really young age. And seeing that study just immediately made me think of RIE. 

Yeah. So fascinating. Children are capable of so much, you know, at such a very young age.

I love that. So what can we do to strengthen or grow our intuition in the early years of parenting? I think if I had to pick a few things based on the research I’ve read, it would be three things. It would be continuing to look for evidence-based information and learning the general things about child development and sort of what all children need and the kind of progression that they tend to go through.

And then observing our own children because they are our best source of intuition and continuing to learn about them and with them. And also, I think there is a bit of that trying not to kind of put any labels on them and put them into any kind of boxes because, you know, we might, a child might have a more of a reserved temperament at birth, but that might be changing.

And so by observing them, we would be seeing how they’re changing and what kind of a person they are and adjusting how we are with them and what kind of experiences we offer them, as opposed to sort of going back to that idea that, oh, they’re just so shy, that’s not going to work for them or things like that.

 And then the third thing I think is continuing to grow ourselves and giving ourselves that space to learn and space to evolve as parents and permission to sometimes to make mistakes and learn from our own mistakes and not be too hard on ourselves and to sort of grow with and alongside our children. Right. Yeah.

 Be gracious with yourself as you’re learning. Yeah. I love that.

So as we wrap up this conversation, what would be a word of encouragement that you’d like to leave with our listeners? I think to pick, to choose one word, it would be the word trust. To trust the process and to trust our babies and ourselves on this journey. Yeah.

Yeah. That’s a great one. So how can people find your book? Yeah.

 So my book, Baby Ecology, it’s available everywhere books are sold in paperback and ebook. So on Amazon, any eBook retailer, and as well as of course, it can always be ordered through a local bookstore or a library. One of my favorite way to read books.

 And then I always, I love to connect with listeners and readers through my website, kidecology.com and as well as social channels. So if anyone has any questions or wants to get in touch, I would love that. Okay.

 Great. I hope you all will take a look at this website because it is just bursting with great information that you can just read so easily and get to. It’s a really amazing resource.

I really appreciate that you have that out there for parents. And so I’ll put all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much Anya for coming on the show and sharing your amazing work with our listeners.


Thank you.