Science, Cuddles and Culture: Why It Is Impossible for Mothers to Spoil Their Babies With Love

Life

Spoiling babies. Picking up too much. Giving in to manipulation.

These opinions have become cultural beliefs, haven’t they?

As if a mother who responds to her baby’s communication is doing the wrong thing.

As if a baby who craves connection and thrives on affection is manipulative.

As if a toddler who is securely attached to his mother is clingy or needy or shy.

It saddens me that our culture has become so uncomfortable with what it looks like to respond to and give our kids exactly what they need. To be deeply in love with our children. To honour the fact that we are social mammals with universal biological needs. To extend our children the freedom and safety to be their authentic selves…no matter how difficult or inconvenient that may be at times for adults.

So, should you believe these opinions passed off as facts for a split second? Should you change the way you interact with your child out of fear of judgment?

Of course not. Let’s see it for what it is…a society that has become so disconnected that we literally can’t recognise an invitation to connection.

People fear what they don’t understand. They push back. They shoot the messenger. They judge. It’s just easier (for them) that way.

And that makes it hard for natural parents who believe that parenting is a relationship, rather than a set of strategies.

Sometimes it can feel like a lonely road, when the white noise of society becomes so loud it threatens to deafen us to our own inner voice. To cloud our deep knowing.

And that’s why we need to practice the art of perspective taking. To look beyond our western culture; to challenge the notion of “normal” and see just how far we have deviated from it. To see parents across the planet parenting in the way nature intended. Because although cultural customs and traditions may vary, the inescapable truth is that all human babies are born with the exact same needs.

Dr. Charlotte Peterson has spent the last forty years traveling the globe to live with and observe parenting practices in peaceful cultures. In Bali, babies are seen as a blessing. At three months of age, there is a ceremony called Tiga Bulan or “three moons”. It is not until the celebration of this ceremony that a new baby’s feet touch the earth. Until that point, the baby is considered “of the heavens” and is constantly held in someone’s arms.

After the ceremony, the baby is considered “of the earth”. Although a baby can be put down, “out of arms” at this point, Charlotte has rarely seen a Balinese infant or toddler not being held or closely watched, by her parents or family members. (1)

“We are much more like wolves than cougars, and like the “lone wolf”, we do not survive if we become too independent or isolated.” Charlotte Peterson, PhD.

In Mayan cultures, cosleeping is considered to be the only reasonable way for young children and parents to sleep. When told that U.S babies and toddlers are put to sleep in a separate room, one Mayan mother responded, “But there’s someone else with them there, isn’t there?” When told that children are sometimes alone in the room the mother gasped and expressed pity for the U.S. babies. (2)

Looking to our primate cousins, a baby Western Lowland Gorilla was recently born at the Dublin Zoo. For six weeks the sex of the baby gorilla remained a mystery. Why? Because the mother instinctively held her baby close to her chest 24/7. And the humans around her respected that. Helen Clarke-Bennett, Team Leader at the Dublin Zoo commented that “Kafi is doing a fantastic job so far as a first-time mother, keeping the young baby physically close in these crucial early stages. Bangui is proving to be an attentive father and at night has been sleeping close to Kafi and the baby.” (3)

We may have walked a different evolutionary path to our primate cousins but the fact remains that we, humans, are a carrying species.

To ask a mother to stop picking up her baby or to sleep in a separate space or to wean by an arbitrary socially acceptable age is to ask both the mother and baby to deny what it is that makes them human. And for what? To promote “independence”. To “teach” self-soothing. To make other disconnected adults feel more comfortable. To repeat the generational dysfunction of people that “turned out ok”. I don’t think so. And science overwhelmingly agrees…

A 2014 study examined the long term effects of skin-to-skin contact on premature infants. Twenty years later, the adults who had experienced skin-to-skin contact when they were babies had higher IQs, significantly larger areas of gray matter in the brain, and earned higher wages than those who had not experienced skin-to-skin care. As children, they had also shown less propensity toward hyperactivity and aggression and were less likely to experience school absences. (1)

“The single most important influence of a child’s intellectual development is the responsiveness of the mother to the cues of her baby.” Dr Michael Lewis

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact, of course, extend to full term babies and are both immediate and long term. One study showed that full-term babies who experienced skin-to-skin care had improved cardio-respiratory stability, higher breastfeeding rates, and decreased crying. (2)While another study showed that babies who were carried more during the day cried and fussed less in the evening and that carrying was also correlated with greater contentment and feeding frequency. The researchers of this study concluded that “The relative lack of carrying in our society may predispose to crying and colic in normal infants.” (3)

The interplay of genetics and experience is highlighted in studies of rats with high or low nurturing mothers. Researchers found that there is a critical period for turning genes on that control anxiety. If in the first ten days of life the rat mother is low nurturing (the equivalent of the first six months of life in a human), the gene never gets turned on and the rat is anxious towards new situations for the rest of its life. (4) Responsive isn’t just a nice idea, it matters.

So, new (or not so new) mama, this is what I want to say to you today.

It is normal that you want to hug and hold and kiss and nurse your baby (day and night).

It is normal that your baby doesn’t want to be separated from you; her survival instincts are strong. She isn’t manipulating, she is communicating. She believes that you and she are one, not two. And on a subconscious level, maybe you do too.

It is normal that she reacts and cries when she can’t see you to bring you back into proximity; that is a healthy response, which will naturally change over time, but it is not to be squashed or questioned or judged. ⠀

It is normal that you don’t want to leave her. That when someone offers for you to have a night out or to leave your baby that after you’ve been gone for an hour or just a few minutes your heartstrings are being pulled. As much as you need a break and some me time, the magnetism of your connection is drawing you back to her. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or needy.

It means you’re bonding with your baby on a deeply emotional and physiological level.⠀⠀

In the early days, she physically needs you to help regulate her bodily systems, like heat and heart rate and her breathing. As she grows into a toddler and beyond she relies on you to co-regulate her emotions. She is calm when she is with you. You are her home.⠀⠀

Your loving interactions are firing and wiring her brain to believe that the world is a safe place. You are teaching her that she can trust others. You are fostering her ability to form healthy relationships in the future.⠀⠀

This time goes by oh so fast and before you know it she will be taking steps away from you. Take solace in the fact that her independence will one day be strong because you’ve slowly and peacefully laid the foundations through a framework of healthy dependence and attachment.⠀⠀

Enjoy this time mama! Revel in this baby bliss. Surrender, close your eyes and fall into the great unknown that is waiting for you. Trust your baby. Forget the clock. Ditch percentiles. And become attuned to her.

She is in love with you for a reason – you are her amazing mama and she knows exactly how to guide you.⠀

IMAGE CREDIT: Jayme Ford

Jayme is the founder of Paper Deer Photography, a family photographer, based in British Columbia, Canada. She strives to create emotive images that tell stories of individual connections, warmth and love. Images that pull the viewer into that very space of time. The small in-between simple gestures are what she loves most; like how your little one plays with your hair, twirls in their favourite dress, or how you offer your hand for guidance. To connect with Jayme, visit her website here, or Instagram or Facebook.

Sources

  1. The Mindful Parent: Strategies from Peaceful Cultures to Raise Compassionate, Competent Kids, Charlotte Peterson, PhD. 
  2. Morelli, G. A., Rogoff, B., Oppenheim, D., & Goldsmith, D. (1992). Cultural variation in infants’ sleeping arrangements: Questions of independence. Developmental Psychology, 28(4), 604-613.
  3. https://people.com/pets/gorilla-baby-dublin-zoo/
  4. Twenty-year Follow-up of Kangaroo Mother Care Versus Traditional Care, Nathalie Charpak et al. 
  5. Moore ER, Anderson GC, Bergman N, Dowswell T. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;5(5):CD003519. 2012 May 16. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003519.pub3
  6. Urs A. Hunziker, Ronald G. Barr, Increased Carrying Reduces Infant Crying: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Pediatrics, May 1986, Volume 77, Issue 5
  7. Meaney, M.J.  Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations.2001. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24,1161-1192
COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    May 20, 2019

    Hi Tracy,

    Yesterday I read your article about babies and the uniqueness of their sleeping habits, so this was a good follow-up to that one.

    Before I had my daughter, I spent a decade working as a massage therapist, so I really resonate with all that you say here. Have you ever read the book “Touching” by Ashley Montague? It was required reading for me when I was in school, and in it he talks about Harlow’s Maternal Deprivation Study that was done on monkeys.

    It’s a heartbreaking experiment, but one that shows beyond a doubt how much babies need their mothers for so much more than just food. There’s a lot to it, but one of the main portions of the study was to provide a baby monkey with two surrogates of sorts-both constructed out of materials-one wire and mesh, and the other made soft with fabric and foam.

    They found that the babies gravitated towards the soft surrogate whether or not it held a bottle of food. They were looking for comfort and warmth. When they did go to the wire surrogate to eat from an attached bottle, they would quickly return to the soft one. Oh my heart! Those little babies just wanted the coziness of their mothers.

    It’s interesting that our culture has distances itself from this basic need. I’m really at a loss as to how we got here. It is changing though-I’ve read some hopeful statistics about co-sleeping that hint at a cultural return to our roots-hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for another great article 🙂

  • Avatar
    May 21, 2019
    Courtney

    Such a lovely and factual piece. As always, I love reading and connecting with your words. 👍

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