If we were to look at cultures purely in terms of their infant care practices, norms and values, which culture would you choose to be born in to? Think carefully, as this choice can make a huge impact on how you develop as a healthy, happy baby. Because the thing is, it does not matter which culture or country an infant is born into, its biological needs are the same – but does the culture a baby is born into meet these needs? Or does it promote crying, fussing, feeding and sleeping issues?
The western culture’s predominant norms and practices around infant care often stray very far from what a baby biologically requires. In fact, when describing how both historically and cross-culturally unusual our parent-infant sleep practises are, researches have come up with this acronym to describe the worst offenders - W.E.I.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), (Heinrich et al., 2010).
The western way of child rearing is one of the biggest mismatches between culture and what a baby biologically expects.
Human babies are mammal babies, more specifically secondary precocial. This is because typical brain growth cannot be completed before birth. Human babies have 25% adult brain growth at birth, compared with 50% of other primates. Humans produce mainly single infants that have well developed internal and sensory organs (can see, hear and call) but our babies have poorly coordinated neuromuscular control, so cannot follow or even cling to their caregiver. Our milk is low in fat and high in sugar, so our infants need to be fed frequently.
Every primate baby is designed to be physically attached to someone who will feed, protect and care for them. They have been adapted over millions of years to expect nothing else and humans produce unusually helpless primate babies!
When you take this into consideration and then think to some of the predominant advice around caring for a new born e.g. teach them to self-settle independently, space their feeds, do not let babies fall asleep at the breast, put babies to bed awake, carry out feed/play/sleep cycles, leave babies to cry or leave them to cry but give them verbal ‘reassurance’, do not let your baby form ‘bad habits’, don’t let your baby sleep on you, enforcing feeding and sleeping schedules or routines and never co-sleeping (for families that have no risk factors and are doing it completely safely), you can start to see what I am talking about.
The dominant western approach to infant care has evolved far faster than baby’s biological needs ever could and this is why there is such a mismatch.
So where does this ‘expert’ advice that pervades western culture come from? During the 1920’s, doctors John B Watson and Frederick Truby King advocated the ‘scientific’ approach to infant care. The focus of their approach valued independence, self-control and self-reliance. It is this focus which you can still see today in many approaches to infant care – particularly in the management of crying, fussing, feeding and sleeping challenges.
It is this approach which encourages independence, self-control and self-reliance that research clearly shows has no beneficial outcomes for infants. In fact, some variations of this approach can at times result in negative outcomes.
So, what can you do to ensure that you are doing your best to meet your baby’s biological needs, to provide them with a loving environment that helps to achieve optimum development, bonding and attachment? Quite simply – physical contact and emotionally connecting with your baby – day and night. 24/7.
Physical contact does so many amazing things for parents and their babies. It reduces maternal anxiety and promotes involvement in their infant’s care, is great for breast feeding initiation and long-term breast feeding success, reduces stress, promotes oxytocin, beta endorphins, prolactin and sleep, conserves heat and energy, can reduce pain levels, premature babies experience less agitation and have more stable vital signs.
You only need to google ‘The still face experiment’ to see the stress inducing effect that a non-responsive caregiver has on a baby – even when in very close proximity.
Rest assured, there are no rules required to meet the biological needs for babies. As mothers, we can just remind ourselves that our babies can communicate to us what they need and through our own biological changes during pregnancy and childbirth, our brains are now primed to learn how to understand our baby’s ways of communicating - to build good two-way communication and trust.
Instead of a culture based on maintaining control and pushing independence, a culture of respect and kindness towards our babies and focusing on meeting their biological will ensure that over time the gap between what dominant western approaches to infant care advocate and what babies genuinely need will continue to narrow.
Prof. Helen Ball, Possums Conference, Brisbane 2017.
Pennie Brownlee. The only person who can do a Pikler is dead: Or why isn’t it a good idea to say ‘We do Pikler at our centre’. February 2015.
Heinrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135.
Amy and Elspeth