Caveat: You may not want to read this if you are mother feeling vulnerable. Although there is scientific and evolutionary evidence for the information, the content is not medical advice--see your medical professional for that.
Human baby helplessness increased over the course of human evolution as humans shifted to bipedal walking. So much so that humans are born 18 months early compared to other primates. It’s really important to get straight on what babies need before having one.
For some reason, U.S. society seems to have forgotten what babies need to grow good bodies, brains and minds. We need to get our minds around the needs of babies. Here is a short list of those needs.
Relaxation during pregnancy/gestation. Fetuses are sensitive to their mother’s moods and experiences. For example, if mother gets hyperstressed, so does the baby, and this can have longterm effects on the child’s stress reactivity and personality (irritability) after birth. So moms need lots of positive social support and to find ways to laugh and feel relaxed during pregnancy. Otherwise children can have longterm health problems.
Childbirth should be as naturalistic as possible. Moms are not machines and babies are not products. Child birth is a process. Each birth is unique with its own timing and pace as the relationship between mom and baby shifts from body-in-body to body-on-body. Moms need the chance to be in charge of the event, trusting their body signals and not treated like they have to be rescued from themselves. A mother from Israel told me recently that hospital policy there is not to interfere for at least a day or longer after a woman’s water breaks. This woman had two births without drugs that she said were ecstatic. She said she would like to get pregnant again just for the birthing experience. How many women in American hospitals ever say that? See here for videos of ecstatic birthing.
Frequent feeding. As Gena Kirby pointed out on her Progressive Parenting TV segment, Lactation Nation, babies have tiny stomachs. They need to eat frequently. If they don’t, they hurt, like we do when our stomachs are empty. Only babies are growing so fast that limiting food intake is like undermining brain and body development. Of course the food that gives babies what they need is breastmilk. In my view, formula is a form of starvation diet since it gives them hardly anything they need to build a strong body, brain and mind. The complexities of all the wonders of breastmilk are hardly known, which embarrasses some chemical scientists. See more about breastmilk and formula HERE.
Constant companionship. Babies are not plants. They are social creatures. Infants are born expecting constant compassionate, responsive care, constant physical companionship and interpersonal communication. They are not going to grow optimally when they are isolated in a carrier, a crib or playpen. Their social brain development will suffer and so will their health and intelligence. Sure they need sleep but it should be social sleep (on or next to someone). Colwyn Trevarthen has suggested that care attachment is not all babies need (Bowlby, 1981). They also need intellectual companionship, playful interactive communication that occurs from birth (under natural conditions).
Immersion in everyday life. Everyday life should not be a power struggle between caregiver and baby. The relationship ideally is mutually responsive. The baby indicates a need (hopefully the caregiver picks up the signal before the baby starts crying from pain) and it should be met quickly and well by the caregiver. But the rest of the time the baby should be part of family life, being carried and held by whomever is around. Babies expect to be moving in arms (see The Continuum Concept for descriptions of a culture where babies are part of the community).
24-hour responsive care needs more than 2 people. Don’t expect to be able to take care of a baby well by yourself or even with a partner. You need much more help than that! Babies need care 24 hours and two people cannot provide it, especially if one is working. A Chinese colleague who just had a baby has a great set up. Her parents came from China to stay for 6 months. Her father does all the cooking and her mother helps with the baby while mom stays home with the baby.
“But these recommendations seem impossible to carry out.”
A big part of the problem is that we have been taught that genes carry the day, that child personality and health is due mostly to genetic factors. Not true. Most of who a child becomes is dependent on experiences in the womb and in early life when all sorts of interactive processes occur, including the turning on and off of genes.
Adults today are also handicapped by the childrearing culture of their own childhoods that taught them that enjoying intimate relationships with others is less valuable than working dutifully or building a list of personal accomplishments. So, neglecting baby needs seems normal, good and right. And we don’t have much empathy for babies because when we were young there was little empathy for us. And, since we rarely practiced, we are losing our skills for intimate social relationships. So it all looks hard, doesn’t it?
Enjoying childrearing is our evolved heritage. Looking to our hunter-gatherer cousins, we can see that they meet all these needs of young children with relish (see Hewlett & Lamb's Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods. They enjoy it! With needs met from the beginning, their children are reportedly very affable.
If you can’t provide these things for a baby, you should think about getting a dog instead. But of course, dogs are mammals like us, and also become neurotic when they don’t get their needs met. Dogs and children are alike this way. If a dog’s or child’s needs have been neglected early on and they develop irritable personalities as a result, no one will want to be around them. So maybe a pet fish?
"But we live in the modern world. How can we accomplish these things?"
Yes, modern life is contrary to the needs of babies, children and families. But who decided we had to live this way—rushing around to make money to look cool and to appear valuable? People can and do change their cultures (see Norway). We could change our culture too. We could get off the crazy-go-round and do what’s really important: taking care of children properly so that they actually develop pleasant personalities, high intelligence and good health. Then they would have the capacities to be better citizens and community members than we adults are today, and have a better chance of leading us through the challenges humanity faces.
NEW BOOK: To read more about the importance of early experience for optimal development, see the forthcoming book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.
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