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The Vital Touch
How Intimate Contact with Your Baby Leads to Happier, Healthier Development
By Sharon Heller
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1997 Sharon Heller, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Parenting in the Machine Age
Nature is already as good as it can be.
It cannot be improved upon.
He who tries to redesign it, spoils it.
He who tries to redirect it, misleads it.
In the child development classes that I teach, I often ask my students to tell me in what position women have traditionally given birth. Lying down, they say. No, I tell them: squatting. Invariably, I get confused looks. The problem lies in the word traditionally. My class defines it as what most women in the United States have done in the last fifty years or so. I define it as what most women on this earth have done for millennia.
Independence vs. Interdependence
To best understand our human nature, which will aid us in making parenting choices, we need to look first at our evolutionary roots.
From the beginning of human time, people have roamed this earth in small bands of thirty to one hundred, forming little villages that congregated around a water source. Social animals by nature, and team players, people lived not separated by concrete walls and locked doors but in huts and tents positioned close together: Either they cooperated and shared resources or they competed and killed one another.
The !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, a modern tribal culture studied intensely since the 1950s, were believed to be one of the few hunting-gathering tribes still left on earth. The structure of their culture reveals much about how humans lived before we ever wielded a hoe or shoveled coal.
Women all came from a "double-income" family, where both mother and father contributed to the family's welfare. Every few days, with their babies safe in slings on their hips, the women paraded in small groups into the bush to gather baobab fruit and other delectables. They left their older children at the village to romp with the other kids, under a grandmother's or aunt's supervision: Day care was free, entertainment was free, and playmates were everywhere. Returning to the village, the women sat on the ground with their babies in their arms or next to them, grooming each other's hair and chattering about what a good lunch they would have. Their older children galavanted nearby. Every three days or so, the men hunted an antelope, a sand grouse, or a giraffe.
Continuously surrounded by kin and community, mother was able to hand her baby over to the waiting arms of grandmother, sister, aunt, neighbor, or an older child when she was tired or wanted to swim in the river or escape into the bushes with her husband. With time to rest and revitalize, she could then eagerly take her baby back.
Though few hunting and gathering tribes are left, most people on this earth still live within the basic structure of extended family and close-knit communities where people, for the most part, rally to one another's side and where the community takes responsibility for the welfare of the children.
Most people, that is, except us. Inhabitants of islands unto ourselves, we live in an individualistic culture, where independence and self-reliance rule. Housed in nuclear families of mother, father, and a few children, we are relatively isolated from kin and live next door to people we rarely talk to. Our motto is every man for himself. When mother is tired, which is often, she stays tired. When she wants to soak in the tub, she places her baby on a blanket on the bathroom floor. When she needs to run to the store, she carts her baby along. When she desires time alone with her husband, she needs to pay a babysitter. As for time alone — what's that?
Stressed, frustrated, unsure, conflicted, and at times resentful from the pressure to assume almost full responsibility for their children's care, modern mothers have a lifestyle that seems "normal" and "traditional" but is in fact neither. Interdependence, not independence, sits best with our basic human nature.
Nor is this pattern going to change any time soon. Our brain's biochemistry and structure, having evolved over millions of years as an adaptation to life within small communities of close kinship, is unable to accommodate the supreme self-reliance and isolation of modern urban life. To ask us to conform to patterns so out of sync with our fundamental tendencies is, as anthropologist Lionel Tiger put it, "like trying to teach a very old animal some very new tricks, without taking into account the nature of the beast." The sounds of personal, familial, and social chaos in our anxious, malcontent, frenzied, and violent society attest to this. Jarring our nerves, our society's practices beg for tuning.
Technology's Isolating Influence
Our strong emphasis on independence came of age with the industrial revolution. Driven by the competition of the free market, upward mobility was the hallmark of our new technology, and self-reliance was the battle cry. The close emotional ties that had defined our species were suddenly discouraged. They were encumbering, we were told, a hindrance to moving up and out and therefore against the American grain of progress.
With the invention of the telephone and faster transportation, families spread out, and the nuclear family replaced the extended one, leaving mother almost single-handedly in charge of children and home. The sooner infants could soothe themselves, feed themselves, sleep and play by themselves, the easier for her.
And so began the denial of infancy as a time of deep dependency. The transition period into independent existence for some American babies, quipped Margaret Mead, "lasts less than a minute — until the umbilical cord is cut!"
Given this climate, American parents were ripe for behaviorism. Led by John Watson, the behaviorists believed we are born a blank slate, our habits and personality formed by rewarding good behavior and punishing the bad. Dependency was bad.
To "form" an independent child, we needed to nip infantile cravings in the bud, before the newborn had the chance to learn dependent habits. Hold your babies too much, mothers were warned, and later they will hold on. Let them cry it out, and they will become self-reliant, hardy, and able to tolerate frustration (of which there was no shortage!), the qualities necessary to succeed in a competitive market.
The following excerpt from Watson's book The Psychological Care of Infant and Child, written in 1928 and hailed by Parents magazine as necessary for "every intelligent mother's shelf," reveals the severity of the views that shaped our parents' and grandparents' upbringing:
There is a sensible way of treating children. ... Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task.
If Watson's advice doesn't make you shudder, consider that of Luther Emmett Holt, Sr., the Dr. Spock of that generation. An inveterate anti–baby toucher and a forceful influence on Watson, he dealt the coûp de grace to loving and nurturant parenting. In The Care and Feeding of Children, the doctor recommended that a parent not spoil the baby by picking it up, no matter how long it cried; to feed the baby on a strict, four-hour schedule — bottle feeding considered as good as breastfeeding; and to abolish the cradle, as rocking was an an "unnecessary" habit, "hard to break and a very useless and sometimes injurious one."
In one fell swoop, these touch prohibitionists denounced the womb comforts that had served babies from time immemorial. Deprived of sufficient holding, warmth, containment, rocking, and sucking, babies spent long periods hungry and frustrated, and parents turned from being a source of assured comfort to one of frequent frustration.
The influence of the behaviorists was powerful. For more than twenty years, Infant Care, published by the U.S. Children's Bureau, warned mothers to avoid at all costs picking up baby between feedings, lest they teach baby that "crying will get him what he wants," and create "a spoiled, fussy baby, and a household tyrant whose continual demands make a slave of the mother." Pressured by the "experts" and reassured that crying was necessary to "exercise their baby's lungs," mothers for decades denied normal maternal feelings. Reluctantly, but dutifully, they withheld cuddling, kissing, and rocking, delayed soothing, discouraged thumb-sucking, and bottle fed on a strict four-hour feeding schedule.
This had profound repercussions on how our grandparents parented our parents and how they, in turn, parented us. "It killed me to hear you cry," said a friend's mother to her, "but I thought I would do you harm if I picked you up." Another mother cried along with her baby. By the time her second child came, she decided this was senseless: "No one's home but me, so no one will see if I pick him up."
Why did the American public buy into such harsh treatment of babies? The behaviorists' philosophy fit into the American dream. If we are born a blank slate and lack any biological influence on our behavior, we can shape our babies into becoming anything we want them to become. "Give me a dozen healthy infants," wrote John Watson, "well formed and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."
For countless parents, life is not that simple. By asserting that all behavior is learned and subject to unlimited malleability, the behaviorists ignored inborn tendencies. In so doing, they wrote their own epitaph.
Both our physical characteristics and our behavior are products of natural selection, fine-tuned over several million years to best assure the survival of our species. Our large brains, for instance, evolved as an adaptation to the large variations and unpredictability inherent in the environments in which we lived. Regardless of its adaptability in our modern high-tech society, our behavior remains guided by the survival mechanisms within our brain that served genetic self-interest in a time long past. Who we marry, the food we eat, and how we parent reflect in large part what solutions to problems succeeded in spurring our early ancestors' genes into the next generation.
Take the problem of what to do with the infant when mothers went foraging. The obvious solution was for mothers to carry their babies with them, since leaving a child unattended for even a moment could spell peril. Having lost our body hair so that our babies could no longer cling like monkeys, mothers developed rounded hips for their babies to straddle and a powerful desire to keep their baby close to them. That our cultural patterns have jumped far ahead of nature's original design for baby care is something that our brain doesn't give a hoot about. Since our maternal feelings and behavior were tested in the environment in which we evolved, these early patterns will remain a stubborn influence in modern life. In other words, though carrying babies around may be at times inconvenient and emotionally stifling, we will continue to have curved hips and, when separated from our infants, guilty feelings.
This does not mean we live in a biological straitjacket. Our behavior is neither wholly learned nor wholly inherited. Rather, heredity lays the foundation of our psychological house and, depending on the plan that best suits adaptation in any given environment, culture varies the style. In life-threatening environments, babies are kept continually close to their mothers during the first year of life. In environments where predators do not lurk, babies are often nested in cradles or cribs for part of the day, with mother nearby. Nevertheless, the underlying structure of the culture reflects nature's original blueprint — an intimate mother-baby relationship embedded in a close-knit community.
To uphold the integrity of this basic design, nature always seeks balance. Consequently, when a given culture varies too far from this basic design, threatening the stability of the mother-baby relationship, a self-righting system motivates us (as a group) to restructure our behavior to a closer ecological fit. It was thus only a matter of time before mothers united against an edict denying them their natural maternal feelings. Slowly, the empire of the anti-touchers began to crumble — though not without resistance.
Among the first people to help infuse nurturance back into our limp infant rearing system was Dr. Fritz Talbot, who discovered stirring proof of the power of tender loving touch while visiting the wards of a children's clinic in Dusseldorf, Germany, before World War I. Struck by the sight of a squat old woman carrying around a sick, feeble child, he inquired who she was. "Oh that is Old Anna. When we have done everything we can medically for a baby and it is still not doing well, we turn it over to Old Anna, and she is always successful." Upon his return to his hometown of Boston, Talbot introduced loving touch into our hospitals and institutions. By the late 1920s, Dr. J. Brenneman, a hospital pediatrician, introduced a rule in his hospital that every baby should be "picked up, carried around, and 'mothered' several times a day." Thanks to "mothering," by 1938 mortality rates for infants at Bellevue Hospital in New York City fell within one year from around 35 percent to less than 10 percent.
With a trend throughout the century moving increasingly in the direction of less harsh parenting, modern parents tend, in general, to be more nurturant than their parents were, who were more nurturant than their parents were. Nevertheless, there's still cause for concern: In spite of all our progress, the postmodern era is more container crazy then ever. Cribs, port-a-cribs, bassinets, cradles, plastic infant seats, bouncies, playpens, highchairs, swings, walkers, buggies, strollers — there's no limit to our use of containers. Of course, there's nothing wrong with using them as parenting supports. But we've gone beyond this: Too often they become parenting substitutes.
Overuse of these touch thieves dehumanizes parenting, creating a wedge between mothers and babies that robs infants of maternal warmth, comfort, and security and robs mothers of intimacy and the assurance that their baby is safe. Pushing babies into premature independence by forcing early self-regulation, rather than mutual regulation with mother, and instilling in infants a sense of disconnectedness from the human experience, a dependence on containers contributes to the social isolation that plagues modern society.
Why do parents use containers so much? Modern parents lack helping hands. What's more, though mothers are more nurturant today, conflict still abides. Even when maternal feelings seem right, a voice of doubt nags at us that too much love will create dependency in our infants. This worry infiltrates our child-care practices: From the beginning, there's a push to disconnect mother and baby.
It begins with a denial of the mother's dependent needs, with a disconnection between her feelings and her body. It begins with the way we give birth.
Our Technological Birth
Jessica just had a baby boy. "Oh how wonderful," I say. "Who's your doctor?"
"Did you deliver naturally?"
"Yes, but it was touch and go. I labored for so long, Coopersmith kept on suggesting a C-section."
"Did they give you pitocin to speed up labor?"
"Did you have an epidural for the pain?"
"Oh God, yes. The pain was unbearable."
"Did you have an episiotomy?"
"Yes, doesn't everyone?"
Hospital; male doctor; C-section; epidural; pitocin; episiotomy — outside the industrialized world, these terms would not suggest childbirth.
The twentieth-century machine age made hospital births rather than home births de rigueur. As a result, birth often takes place in a perfunctory, cold, overlighted, overstimulating delivery room that transforms birth from a natural event attended by supportive family into a depersonalized medical model of illness directed by machines and strangers in a strange environment.
Theoretically, hospital births are not all bad. In fact, they accord with the basic rule of evolution: survival. Giving birth is a time of maximum defenselessness: Should danger arise, the mother is unable to fight or flee. To maximize survival, birth needs to take place where mother feels most safe and secure. In that modern medicine has all but eliminated childbirth as a life-threatening event for both mother and baby, this should have made childbirth less anxious, but it didn't. To feel safe, human beings need the comfort of others.
Excerpted from The Vital Touch by Sharon Heller. Copyright © 1997 Sharon Heller, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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