Can Isolated Babies Become “Real” Human Beings?
To become a real human being one must experience the evolved social environment
Posted Sep 01, 2014
The Velveteen Rabbit, a popular children’s book, depicts how a stuffed rabbit becomes “real” from the love of a boy (and some magic). I’m afraid that what we are routinely doing to babies today is taking them in the opposite direction. They are becoming less “real,” that is, less human.
It is routine these days to physically isolate babies from mothers, fathers and other caregivers. For example:
- At birth, hospitals routinely separate baby from mom for tests (although baby-friendly hospital guidelines advise otherwise)
- Sleeping alone at night: sleep training advocates, based on findings from poorly-designed research, tell parents to sleep train the baby in ways that not only damage their relationship with baby but the baby’s development.
- Physical aloneness during the day (e.g., sitting in carriers, playpens, cribs) starves the child of touch.
Humans, more so than any other social mammal, evolved to expect nearly constant physical contact in early life while the brain is rapidly developing its thresholds and parameters for multiple systems. Early life is the period for intensive care, constant physical presence and responsive social interaction.
Constant physical touch (preferably skin-to-skin) grows the the baby and the baby’s body expects it (as anyone can tell from the protests a baby gives when separated from the body of the mother or caregiver). The baby expects constant positive holding until mobility develops (9 months or so), the period when the child chooses when to move away from the caregiver (who is still close by and ready to hold and carry baby when requested).
So if a baby doesn’t get this constant touch, can they still grow into a “real” human being?
Let’s look at animals. Some argue that animals in zoos are only imitations of their cousins (Evernden, 1999) in the wild because (a) they are out of their environmental context and so behave abnormally; and (b) they are not in the social environment that accompanies their species and so develop abnormally.
Similarly, domesticated animals have lost some of their essence too since they are bred by humans for docility.
If we turn the camera on human beings, the same distortions are happening, but perhaps more so. When we physically isolate babies at any point, we are taking them out of the environment that fosters their normal development. They won’t develop in the same way as a baby who was constantly held close, as set up by evolution. We know that touch keeps babies calm and non-touch leads to less self-regulation, one of the key foci of research these days (as self-regulation has deteriorated across the population in recent decades).
But it’s not just self-regulation that is affected. Babies expect to engage frequently in sensitive, responsive face-to-face social “conversations” when they are awake. This is the social environment that evolved with the species. These experiences foster the foundation for social skills that underpin social life later. When missing or minimized, babies are not going to develop the same social brain as a baby who receives what is expected.
So, can we call undercared for babies real humans? Or are they imitations, like animals in the zoo or in feeding lots? Certainly, they are not going to be humans in the fullest sense.
What does it matter?
Whether or not one thinks treating animals in the ways we do is moral (or enslavement), zoo animals and feeding lot animals are relatively peaceful and untroublesome. In contrast, humans who are similarly mistreated are everywhere. Few of us are put in cages and that only happens when the powers that be are upset or we misbehave in terrible ways.
The rest of the time, the partial humans walk among us, zombies of sorts. Self-regulation may be sketchy and social skills minimal, making them potentially dangerous when upset. When undercare is extensive, their hearts may be disconnected from their minds. If they have spent much of their childhood with screens (tablets, television, computers) their understandings of the world is mostly not real-world experience but mediated experiences where what they “know” is shaped by the opinions of those whose media they consume. Disconnected from relational attunement, they can be dangerous.
So it does matter. When babies’ expected experience is missing, so too will be their human nature. Unreal humans develop talents and blind spots that destroy not only themselves eventually but their habitat. We can retool ourselves as adults with exercises in mindfulness, compassion, and experiences of loving relationships. But it would be better to get things off on the right foot and treat babies as growing loving beings who need our support.
Evernden, N. (1999). The natural alien: Humankind and environment, 2nd ed. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.
Field, T.M. (1999). Touch in early development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Field, T.M. (2007). The amazing infant. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Montagu, A. (1971). Touching; The human significance of the skin. New York: Perennial Library (Harper & Row).
Pathways to child flourishing will take place at the University of Notre Dame, September 26-30, 2014. Upcoming posts will review the speakers who are presenting.
- The first half is a conference co-sponsored by Attachment Parenting International, Nurturing Families, Flourishing Children, and is aimed at parents and practitioners.
- The second half is an academic conference, Contexts for Development and Child Flourishing, aimed at those interested in hearing about research related to child flourishing from psychologists, anthropologists, and clinicians.
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:
When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):
Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.
When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.
All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.
My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):
Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003
Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.
Also see these books for selected reviews:
Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)
Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (W.W. Norton)