Barbara Higham has noticed that “How do I put my baby down?” is a question that comes up frequently in the search terms that readers are looking for on this blog.
It doesn’t surprise me. That a baby wants to be held pretty much all of the time comes as a big shock to the majority of new mothers. The image we internalize from many media is that of a baby sleeping sweetly in a crib in a prettily decorated nursery or of one lying on a blanket gurgling happily. When a baby appears in a TV drama, for instance, it’s usually carried around in a carseat. The woman acting as new mother then features in a number of scenes in the show minus her baby bundle, apparently unencumbered by her infant’s immediate needs.
Even mothers who expect to spend a large amount of time with their newborns are nevertheless unprepared for just how absorbing the responsibility for a new life is. When you struggle to use the bathroom because you can’t put your baby down without her crying, or you do not have time to shop, cook, or even get dressed, lots of people tend to assume something is wrong.
Unlike other animals, newborn humans are totally dependent on their mothers. The baby’s brain is only about 25 percent of adult size, smaller than any other erect two-legged primate mammal’s brain at birth. In Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven natural laws for nursing mothers, Mohrbacher and Kendall-Tackett explain: “[W]ith our larger brains and smaller pelvises, our babies’ heads are in danger of growing larger than the mothers’ pelvic region can accommodate” so gestation continues on the outside of mother’s body, on the other side of her skin but still right next to her heart, and “the ingredients unique to human milk play a key role in this.”
A newborn is as dependent outside the womb as she was inside it and every bit as vulnerable, possibly more so. Inside the mother’s body, the baby was cared for every minute and following her expulsion from that safe place, is helpless and naturally expects the same level of care for some time to come. The schedule for a human to mature is the slowest of any animal: up to 20 years of physical growth and closer to 30 years of brain development. Like all animals, humans have evolved a developmental system for their young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the offspring (Gottlieb, 2002). This is what Professor of Psychology Darcia Narvaez calls the “evolved nest” period.
The immaturity of the newborn human baby necessitates 24-hour care. Humans cannot safely leave their offspring, unlike ‘nest’ mammals, such as cats and dogs, who deposit their litter for shared warmth in a nest while they are away, or mammals, such as deer and rabbits, who hide their young in a safe place, only returning once or twice in the day to feed them with high protein, high fat milk. Human milk won’t sustain our newborns for more than a few hours at a time, at most: it has relatively low levels of fat and protein and that is why our babies need to feed around the clock. Humans are ‘carry’ mammals (a term that includes apes and marsupials, such as the kangaroo). But a human infant’s instinctive attachment to its mother is much more than a biological need for food and warmth.
We’ve been discovering more about the human needs for mother’s physical presence since Harry Harlow carried out a series of horribly memorable experiments with baby rhesus monkeys in the 1950s. The newborn monkeys were removed from their biological mothers and offered a wire ‘mother’ and/or a cloth ‘mother’ instead. It was hypothesized that the monkeys would attach equally to the wire mother, since she also fed them, but the experiment showed otherwise. Monkeys who were given the choice spent a lot of time cuddling the cloth mother, and when they were subjected to frightening stimuli (e.g. loud bangs), after a period of anxiety, were able to calm themselves by cuddling. They used the cloth mother as a “psychological base of operations.”
The effects of maternal touch deprivation on the brains of those monkeys were found to have a long-lasting impact on their abilities for self-regulation and sociality. Further studies in humans have since indicated that maternal touch lowers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which benefits neuronal and immune systems because high cortisol levels destroy neurons and immune cells (Field & Hernandez-Reif, 2013).
Holding, carrying, rocking, and positive touch are actions that all babies expect and their need for such comfort and their crying if they do not receive it, are not signs of manipulative behavior or of a mother’s inadequate milk supply. They are appropriate expressions of what babies require for normal growth. When babies are not responded to consistently, they develop insecure attachments, and that has long-term implications for health, as this 32-year longitudinal study found: Puig, Englund, Simpson, & Collins, 2013.
At birth, when there is no separation of mother and baby and no imposed distress, skin-to-skin contact facilitates the release of the hormone oxytocin in both members of the pair, reducing stress (Bystrova et al., 2007), which leads to a more responsive relationship and greater child self-regulation a year later (Bystrova et al., 2009).
Breastfeeding provides a comprehensive way for mothers to respond to their babies and satisfies the baby’s need for closeness (which includes the familiar sound of mother’s heartbeat that the baby has heard every day in the womb), food, drink, warmth, the feel of her skin, and the reassurance that her primary source of attachment will not leave her. The early life experience of breastfeeding promotes physical and mental resilience and sets the stage for physical health in later life (Shonkoff, 2016). A recent study found that breastfeeding duration predicts greater maternal sensitivity over the next decade of the child’s life (Weaver, Schofield, & Papp, 2018).
So why does the baby’s need for constant care come as such a shock to mothers? Why is it so difficult to acknowledge and accept that we can’t separate from our babies or sometimes even put them down? Partly, it is because in the industrialized world, we have largely forgotten how breastfeeding works and, because few understand how it works, support is lacking. Artificial feeding has become the norm, and many people misinterpret a baby’s desire to breastfeed more often than every couple of hours as a sign that the mother doesn’t have enough milk, whereas frequent breastfeeding and cluster nursing are actually a common pattern for most young breastfed babies.
Our culture misreads the normal things our babies do because we have been raised with unrealistic expectations about what it is to be human.
Bystrova, K., Widström, A., Matthiesen, A., Ransjö-Arvidson, A., Welles-Nyström, B., Wassberg, C., … Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2007). Skin-to-skin contact may reduce negative consequences of “the stress of being born”: A study on temperature in newborn infants, subjected to different ward routines in St. Petersburg. Acta Paediatrica, 92(3), 320-326. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2003.tb00553.x
Bystrova, K., Ivanova, V., Edhborg, M., Matthiesen, A.-S., Ransjö-Arvidson, A.-B., Mukhamedrakhimov, R., … Widström, A.-M. (2009). Early contact versus separation: Effects on mother-infant interaction one year later. Birth, 36(2), 97–109. doi:10.1111/j.1523-536x.2009.00307.x
Field, T., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2013). Touch and pain perception in infants. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A.N. Schore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy (pp. 262-276). New York: Oxford University Press.
Harlow, H. F., and Zimmermann, R. R. (1959). Affectional responses in the infant monkey. Science, 130, 421–432. doi: 10.1126/science.130.3373.421
Puig, J., Englund, M. M., Simpson, J. A., & Collins, W. A. (2013). Predicting adult physical illness from infant attachment: A prospective longitudinal study. Health Psychology, 32(4), 409–417. doi:10.1037/a0028889
Shonkoff, J.P. (2016). Capitalizing on advances in science to reduce the health consequences of early childhood adversity. JAMA Pediatr, 170(10),1003–1007. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.1559
Weaver, J. M., Schofield, T. J., & Papp, L. M. (2018). Breastfeeding duration predicts greater maternal sensitivity over the next decade. Developmental Psychology, 54(2), 220–227. doi:10.1037/dev0000425