Today, I wanted to take a moment, or a dozen, to say a little more about the simple and vital act of holding our babies — especially those newborns. You may remember from the last post, I mentioned “the fourth trimester” — the increasingly common phrase for the final gestational development an infant undergoes in the few months immediately after birth — I’ll say a little more about that, too. And just for fun, I’ll throw in a couple prophecies of “super-human” capabilities, as well. To those of you parenting “over-achievers” who have studied-up on infant brain development and/or are Attachment pros — please bear with me if you find yourself yawning. You may feel free to just gloss over the stuff you know, and seek out the nuggets of deeper understanding regarding this significant and necessary concept in Attachment theory. To those of you just getting your parenting bearings — even if it takes you a couple days to get through it all — don’t miss a word of what follows.
First, you should know, the design of which you are a part is flawless. You as parent with your baby are honed to nothing short of a biological perfection. Your body and your brain have and/or are currently developing all the right skills, endurance, pheromonal communications, hormonal fluxes, micro- and macro-physical responses, nervous system connections, and intuitions necessary to make you a fine parent. You’re built to do this. And, frankly let’s face it, the process of building a baby, birthing it, and nurturing it to adulthood, is ridiculously common place. Don’t get me wrong, our own babies are *miracles* — but babies, in general, well, they’re a dime a dozen, aren’t they? In fact, raising a baby to being old enough to fend for itself is so commonplace that even the simplest animals have no trouble doing it at all.
But humans are not “the simplest animals”, you say. As a species, we just happen to be so highly evolved that we are (as far as we know) unparalleled by any creature on the Earth. Of course, we are the planet’s best known fools as well, but that’s another story… In the course of our evolution, humanity, and more specifically the human brain, has reached a developmental state such that we are capable of participating in relationship to life, the planet, and each other in a manner and to a degree that is richer and more complete than any other animal on the planet, perhaps ever. This also happens to make us dependent on our parents and care-givers for much much longer than our cohabitants. We humans are among the slowest children on the development block. Notably, we are accompanied by our closest primate relatives, the chimps and apes, who carry their babies until about 3 or 4, nurturing them until almost 7; and elephants who nurse exclusively until the offspring are between 3 and 5, and continues nursing sometimes until the child is 10.
The answer goes immediately back to that amazing brain of ours. It’s a work of art no less magnificent than humanity itself. It has been evolving for so long and has become such a specialized instrument, and such a complex part of the body that it not only carries “programing” within it (purely unconsciously) helping us continuously, including when it’s our turn to be parents; but more importantly for the moment, it also carries a program to help the infant develop, and can even prepare itself during its development for higher and higher capabilities depending on how it is nurtured through the maturation process. The human brain itself is actually working through us to develop it’s own child (the next generation’s brain), just as we are working to assist our children in their development.
It’s a bit of an alien concept, I know, but there’s good reason to believe that awareness is developing itself, right alongside of humanity’s evolution, and via each of our own individual paths throughout life, and particularly through parent-and-childhood. I don’t mean to get too lofty here. The bottom line is this — our brains are helping us, both the parents and the babies, and our brains “know” a great deal more than we do. We can choose to trust in it or not as we please, but if we want to give our children the best that we can give them, then we would do well to at least honour the brain, and yield to it’s processes of development.
Now, as most high school students could tell you (if they would talk to you) — as we humans evolved from earlier primates, we grew a lot, and our brains more than doubled in size; in fact, some theorists hypothesize that our bodies have grown so much since our early beginnings, just to be able to feed our swelling brains. As our brains got bigger, they also got a lot more complex, overlaying older, simpler structures with new, more advanced biological technology. We also added and expanded a number of new features as we grew our grey matter, most notably, the gigantic frontal lobe. Compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, we’re like those bubble-brained aliens on Star Trek when it comes to frontal lobes. Chimps and apes’ brains are about 7% frontal lobe; in the human brain it’s nearly 17%. And as it turns out, that frontal lobe is one interesting bit of brain. It’s where most of our higher thinking happens, and is vitally involved every time we make a decision; it’s generally considered the place from which we moderate our own behavior, express our personalities, and process social dynamics; and some say it carries the seat of awareness itself. The frontal lobe additionally has evolved to make excellent use of its relationships with the other parts of the brain; and truthfully the entire development of the human brain has hinged on the process of making excellent use of what was already there in the “lower” forms of pre-hominid brains.
Think of it this way — if brains in general are machines, then the earliest models of brains were/are wind-up toys: they’re set in motion and just perpetuate repetitiously until they wind down (usually immediately following procreation). Reptile brains are calculators: they perform a prescribed set of specific functions only, and very little if anything outside of those parameters. Mammal brains get into higher and higher forms of computing devices, all the way up to humans, which are a bit more advanced than your standard desktop personal computer. And as mentioned above, part of what makes the human brain-computer so powerful is that it has carefully maintained and refined the best elements of the wind-up toys, the calculators, and the simple Commodore 64’s that preceded it evolutionarily. We’ve got hardware, and hardwired programs that run, whether we tend to them or not; and we’ve got additional programs that come added in (on arrival) and that can expand as we use them; and then, depending on the software that is downloaded onto our hard drives, we run more and more varying and coalescing programs throughout our lives. If we get low-grade software, or if it doesn’t get downloaded properly, or our hard drives get hacked by destructive programming, or the like, then our capacity may be limited, our programs may run into errors that force shut downs, or our programs may conflict, etc., etc.. Whereas, if we get top-of-the-line software, and it’s loaded with care, and our security systems are in place to protect our processors, then we are capable of running programs like Mozart 2.0, or Einstein 3.1, or Gandhi OSX.
“That’s not all [our brains have evolved], no that’s not all!”, but it does begin to explain why our brains know more than we do about being a parent, as well as why we take so much longer to grow up.
In terms of development, and raising our little infants, there’s two important things I don’t want to pass over: 1) the brain has swelled in humans to such an extent, that we not only have a longer developmental period of dependency, but we are also all born “early” just so that we can get our big heads out of the birth canal; and 2) as intimated above, the brain is so highly developed, and has such potential that even the process of it’s development develops according to the environment. These two points are vital to understand if we are to offer our children all that we can for their best possible development. And both absolutely require that we hold our babies.
First things first — babies are born before their skulls harden. In fact, the plates of bone in the skull aren’t even finished growing in size, let alone the fact that they are freely moving plates basically anchored-but-afloat above the brain. These plates actually slide over one another slightly during birth — which accounts for the pointy crown of most vaginally-delivered newborns — then the plates begin to settle into place shortly after birth, and close in the seams and gaps (those “soft spots”) over time. Let’s be clear about this — the head isn’t done yet when the baby comes out. So it’s really important to keep it close to a soft Mama or Papa, cushioned from the sharp-pointy and hard-flat world for at least those first few months. In fact, the sheer perfection created during the development of our species has arranged it such that, the baby’s skull starts to be hard enough to handle the world a little more just as the baby is starting to be able to hold her big ole head up, and the skull gets harder still just in time for baby’s later motor-development as well. But in that first short period, the baby is ready (physically and mentally) only to make the immense transition from his previous (entire!) life being one way to his post-natal life being totally different from that womb-bliss existence. The first three months, you are just grounding the baby in life outside the womb. I say more about that process in a moment, but I just want that fact to be set in stone for you first. The fourth trimester is just about this “life after birth” transition. That’s it.
Secondly, if we want the baby’s brain to develop to it’s fullest potential, we must honour its ideal process. We have to give it all that it needs at each stage, or else the brain hedges it’s bets, and begins to rewire it’s process. The brain figures, and perhaps rightly so, that if it isn’t going to get it’s optimal developmental environment, it’ll adapt and change it’s strategies for better survival and development given the actual environs. That drive, to develop no matter what, is why we as a species are even here at all. But it’s not how we thrive, nor how we bring our latent capabilities to fruit. In order to claim the promise of the human brain, we parents must spend those first months tending to the infant’s transition from in Mama’s womb to on Mama’s chest, and then onto Mama and Papa’s hips (backs, etc.), and then holding onto Mama and Papa’s hands, and so on. And the way the brain needs us to do that is by continually making each chapter of the transition feel safe.
That’s all there is to it, really. But it’s so vital to attend to this one part properly that I would rate it as the single most important portion of all the parenting we will do of our children throughout our lives together. We can all live without childhood going ideally, but none of us would be alive if we didn’t get that safe feeling at least some of the time. The sense of security that the brain needs to develop has a spectrum of thresholds: without any sense of safety a newborn will die (from a condition cryptically know as “failure to thrive”); with a minimum experience of security, babies will live but be vastly under-developed and/or psychologically dissociated; at a higher amount of security, as most of us have had, development proceeds largely unimpeded, but with less vigor than that of which it is capable, babies grow into under- or mis-developed adults with all the physical, mental, and emotional atrophies and dysfunction that are so prevalent today. Of course, there is a higher threshold, still, experienced by precious few, wherein the infant and growing child is made to feel ultimately secure, comfortably safe, and unconditionally loved — in short, as though he belongs — at which point the brain, nervous system, and body are fully signaled and empowered to develop, absorb, learn, and create in ways that most of us can barely imagine today.
The process of keeping the brain steeped in a tender sense of security so that it will unfurl its wings wide, and truly embrace the world, and flourish in it, is indeed fairly simple, generally speaking. The specifics, however, can get inventive, and could be hyper-idiosyncratic. That is, we can pick from innumerable ways to help our newborns transition — the sky’s the limit — so long as we are willing to defer to what works for the child — and that means, each child, regardless of what worked for her sibling or your best friend’s baby. I mentioned some ideas in the last post, but essentially, beginning in the early months of pregnancy, you want to talk to your baby, and play semi-quiet music to the belly (that you’ll play again once she is out), let Mama’s belly get some sunlight (that baby will be able to perceive from in the womb as well), etc., etc..
It’s also important to give birth as gently as possible, remembering that you are the giver of your child’s only birth. Be kind to yourself, but remember that this process isn’t just about you surviving getting your baby out, it’s also about the process the baby needs to come out feeling safe. I happen to be of the opinion that the trip down the birth canal, and the requisite full-body every-inch bear-hug the baby gets on the way, precipitates the baby’s first neurological leap. If it goes according to plan, the baby gets a massive influx of physical experience and information unlike anything he’s ever witnessed, which clearly marks a break in the baby’s old life, and shocks him into a new kind of awareness. This is accompanied by a flood of adrenaline, which is a good internal drug for “brain-learning” (as opposed to intentional, intellectual-learning) as well as “fight or flight” reactions, but is only of service to him if the baby gets to calm down from the adrenaline rush in order to assimilate the new information and feel safe enough to continue to be open to further stimulus.
Most of us, Boomers and Generation X-ers, got stiffed on this part. Most of us were born, high-density capitalistic-production style. Our mothers were often drugged during labor, and we came out stoned, and unable to recognize our mothers as human babies are normally able to in the moments after birth (both Mama’s smell and sounds, as well as her visage); and even if we could have connected with our mothers through the narcotic haze, we were summarily whisked away to spend our first several hours amongst the wails, bright lights, and mechanical sounds of the nursery. No warm snuggle from Mom, no smell of her pheromones, no sound of her heart, or voice. I think the vast majority of us suffered irreversible brain damage from this kind of experience. We don’t realize or recognize it because, hey, we’re all this way, and because we’re still basically functional — if you call using a mere fraction of our brain’s capacity “functional”. No, the sad truth is, most of us should sue our birth doctors, and the institutions that treated us so poorly, because that’s how wronged we’ve been.
In The Magical Child, Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote of one of the few research projects I know of that has been at the right place and time to study this. In the mid-50s in Uganda, as Westernized medical facilities were being introduced there, Marcelle Geber began a study comparing infants born at home under traditional village conditions, and their more affluent, hospital-born peers. Some of the most note-worthy points of comparison included blood-adrenaline levels (i.e., adrenal steroids in the blood), length of time before first smiles, interactivity, sensorimotor learning, and general development. The findings were utterly incredible. For those of you who are interested, I’ve included an entire passage of Pearce’s description of the findings below, but for our present purposes, it’s enough to just mention some of them as follows: First, the home-born babies were smiling, engaging with others, and beginning to show signs of rudimentary body control by the fourth day after being born. Additionally, the adrenal steroids present in these infants’ blood analyses, which were high immediately following and as a result of natural birth stress, were totally at normal levels by that fourth day. The blood analyses of the hospital-born infants still showed high amounts of adrenal steroids at 2 1/2 months. They were still in a post-birth adrenaline rush state, perhaps even a “fight-or-flight” state, months after being born. And more importantly, these infants were months behind in physical and cognitive development as well, and were not even smiling until that 2 1/2 month mark.
As this data made/makes obvious, our intellect as embodied in Western Medicine, and Western Society for that matter, had outrun (but not outdone) our nature, we got so technologically advanced that we even began to thwart our own development. Fortunately, since the time when these studies were done, we have come a long, long way. There’s still plenty to do, but today you can have a gentle, secure-feeling birth even in a hospital. And as we learn more, we are continuing to demand more and more natural birth options and practices.
So a gentle birth is vitally important, but equally important is what we do after birth. Knowing how important it is to keep them feeling secure, we give our babies the right touchstones between in-utero life and out-utero life. We help them feel safe. We tend to their needs immediately. We let them feed at their whim. We sleep with them. In short, we nurture them — but not just by sustenance and shelter — also by physically holding them safe and secure in our arms. It’s the best way to remind them that this “out here” is just one step removed from “inside there”, and just as safe to explore. It’s also the best way to continue birth’s kick start to the central nervous system.
Remember, in the extreme, babies who aren’t held, suffer the same fate as babies who aren’t fed. They “fail to thrive”. In the natural scenario, however, children feel safe, they grow easily and relatively quickly and completely (compared with us), and the brain unfolds it’s various processes just fine. And in the best case scenario, I believe we can empower our children to develop in ways that we now think of as miraculous.
So here’s a top-of-my-head breakdown of some of the benefits of holding our babies:
- They feel calmer (on all levels) and more secure. They are therefore more easy-going and generally happy.
- They feel identification with the sounds, smells, and rhythms of Mama in particular (at first), and so feel “right (back) at home” when next to her chest, especially.
- If Mama is carrying baby close to her chest, and can provide easy access, then baby can nurse as often as she likes, which feels better to her belly as well as her psyche. Remember, babies aren’t thinking of nursing as food, not by a long shot, so the logic that “she can’t be hungry again” holds very little currency. It might make more sense to respond instead with, “Oh you want more comfort? Well here you go!”.
- The stimulus from the motion, and the proximity to our bodies, and the sensation of our touch lights up their nervous systems like a Yule tree.
- As they continue to ride around on our bodies, they are forming important neural links, learning about balance, developing appropriate muscle groups for their later endeavors, and feeling the process of walking, stooping, leaning, and standing in relationship to gravity.
- And to expand on the above, the “mirror neurons” present in our babies’ brains mean that their brains are learning the correct neurons to fire for the process of walking, simply by riding around with us watching and feeling us walking — as well as learning the neurons to fire for any other task that they are watching and/or feeling us doing.
- The mother’s body in particular, is also designed to adjust its temperature to accommodate the infant’s needs, and to grow muscle tissue at the exact rate necessary to match her infant’s growth, as well as other amazing feats — so long as her nervous system is cued by skin to skin contact and close proximity with, in addition to actually carrying, the baby.
- As it turns out, we’re also far more likely to talk to our babies when we’re holding them in our arms, or on our chests or our backs, than when they are further away from us, and possibly facing the other way, as in a stroller or car-seat carrier. Talking to them is another fabulous “developing tool”, by the way, helping babies learn language faster, and cueing their bodies to undergo the normal series of body movements they have unconsciously associated with every single syllable of their native language (which is both good for language development, and neural/nervous system development).
I’d like to share with you one quick example, of what I call the “empowered nervous system” of the well-nurtured human. All three of my daughters are advanced by current standards in our culture. They’ve all been ahead of their peers in cognitive and emotional development for most of their lives. But I have the sense that due to the various conditions of each of my children’s infancy, and due to Natalie and my continued learning and development as parents, we did “the best job” nurturing and empowering Echo’s development. She is a four year-old with a poetic vocabulary that would put most college students to shame; who can sound out multi-syllabic words she is reading for the first time, solve simple math equations, and count to 160 and beyond; who can tell from several blocks away if we are taking an alternate route home in the car; who can empathize with others better than many adults; and who can, yes, I’m serious, read minds.
I rarely mention these sorts of things outside my village, because I don’t want people to misunderstand my intent. I’m certainly not bragging about the job we’ve done. I am simply making a claim for what (may be the least that) we could all expect if we focused our efforts on nurturing the genius of our infants according to the biological design Nature has been refining for billions of years. We may have to give up a number of the modern parenting-conveniences to which we have recently become accustomed. We may have to dedicate ourselves a little more than we’d planned. We may even have to put some of our personal goals on hold for a fleeting, blink-of-an-eye period. But the rewards for our children, as well as the long term effects for our species, are nothing short of revolutionary. And, furthermore, if we do it right — that is, if we give ourselves over to the process, and trust in the biological design — we have a unique opportunity to grow our (neural, psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical…) selves a bit, too.
It’s true, handling your baby this way may require more of you than what seems required of the parents who “sleep train”, who whisk their babies around in car-seat carriers that transform into strollers, who leave their babies strapped into said carrying devices and/or confined to their play stations for hours on end, who let their babies “cry it out”. It may seem like you have chosen the more intensive version of parenting than your modern-convenience colleagues. This, however, is not the case for at least the two following reasons: 1) If you give yourself over, and allow yourself to be fully present (with your body and your empathic responsiveness) with your baby, then you connect with the baby in such a way that you and the baby can perform your roles more easily. That is, you increase muscle strength (in exact proportion to your baby’s steady increase in weight), you develop more sensitive intuitions about your baby’s needs, you learn greater compassion, etc., as well as helping your baby develop herself more rapidly, feel more secure and therefore less likely to feel the impulse to fuss in order to get her needs met, and experience greater periods of satisfaction. 2) If you make your baby’s transition from inside to outside smooth and easy, and help her feel secure as she grows, then she’ll have a far easier time later on while her friends (whose parents seemed enviable for their modern conveniences) struggle with dissociative feelings, insecurity, self-doubt, and alienation.
It may feel like it costs you a lot in the moment, and you may have an occasional sense of worry about what you are personally giving up to do it, but in the end, no one ever regrets how much time they spent nurturing their kids.
And be well.
Here’s a link to a great video on skin-to-skin contact with newborns and some of the research that’s been done showing it’s beneficial effects for baby, Mom, and Dad. Here’s another article on another recent study showing benefits of carrying our babies.
The Magical Child (pages 38-9):
…in 1956, Marcelle Geber, under a research grant from the United Nations Children’s Fund, travelled to Africa to study the effects of malnutrition on infant and child intelligence. She concentrated on Kenya and Uganda and made a momentous discovery. She found the most precocious, brilliant, and advanced infants and children ever observed anywhere. These infants had smiled, continuously and rapturously, from, at the latest, their fourth day of life. Blood analyses showed that all the adrenal steroids associated with birth stress were totally absent by that fourth day after birth. Sensorimotor learning and general development where phenomenal, indeed miraculous. These Ugandan infants were months ahead of American or European children.
These infants were born in the home, generally delivered by the mother herself. The child was never separated from the mother, who massaged, caressed, sang to, and fondled her infant continually. The mother carried her unswaddled infant in a sling, next to her bare breasts, continually. She slept with her infant. The infant fed continuously, according to its own schedule. These infants were awake a surprising amount of the time — alert, watchful, happy, calm. They virtually never cried. Their mothers were bonded to them, and sensed their every need before that need had to be expressed by crying. The mother responded to the infant’s every gesture and assisted the child in any and every move that was undertaken, so that every move that was initiated by the child ended in immediate success. At two days of age (48 hours) these infants sat bolt upright, held only by the fore-arms, with a beautifully straight back and perfect head balance, their finely focused eyes staring intently, intelligently at their mothers. And they smiled and smiled.
New [Westernized] hospitals were being erected in Uganda at the time of Geber’s studies. Only the upper-class Ugandan families could afford such a luxury, of course, and the women of this class naturally followed the fashion of having their children in hospitals. These hospital-delivered infants, it turned out, followed the same schedule American and European infants do. Geber found that they did not smile until some 2 1/2 months after birth. Nor were they precocious in any sense. They showed no signs of sensorimotor learning, displayed no uncanny intelligence for some 2 1/2 months, at which point some signs of intelligence were apparent. Blood analysis showed that high levels of adrenal steroids connected with birth stress were still prevalent at 2 1/2 months. These infants slept massively, cried when awake, were irritable and colicky, frail and helpless… The issue lay solely in with what happens to the newborn infant…