Recently my therapist gave me a book to read, because it confirmed so clearly what I was reliving in my sessions with him. I’d like to share it here. It is an archaeologically-based book called The Prehistory of Sex, and is written by Timothy Taylor and published by Bantam Books, 1997. The relevant section is on pages 189 – 191.
Taylor states that in hunter-gatherer societies, children continue to breastfeed until the age of five or six. They get great comfort from the unconditional love that breastfeeding provides. From this they learn trust, reliance, and sharing. The author points out, that far from becoming dependent individuals, they display a remarkable autonomy, because they have a strong, inner sense of their own value.
He makes the point that in warrior societies, the opposite is often the case. Colostrum is frequently withheld from the baby. Early weaning usually follows this. As a result, the baby is left with unresolved pain, anger, helplessness and rage, which it cannot understand, and cannot express.
Later in life, this is likely emerge in the form of either depression, or aggressive and violent tendencies, which may be projected onto and acted-out against another person, or a group of people. Thus, such a society becomes a war-like one. (Swiss Psychoanalyst Alice Miller discusses a similar phenomenon in her book “For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Childrearing”).
There is a practice currently being taught by doctors and child-care professionals, called ‘controlled crying’. Parents are urged to use it to make their children more independent. Timothy Taylor has deeper insight into what it is actually doing to the baby. *
He says that for early weaning to be successful, the child must be made to sleep alone, and its crying ignored. In the approach called ‘controlled crying’, the child is allowed to cry a little more each night before its needs for food and comfort are responded to. As a result, the child eventually stops crying at all. At this point the uninformed may be delighted, believing the child has been trained into better habits.
In contrast, what Timothy Taylor suggests has happened, is that a basic animal instinct has come into play – one observed in the young of most mammals and birds. The baby instinctively feels, “If you signal your distress and no one comes, you have been abandoned. You will die unless you conserve energy. Crying expends energy. Therefore in order to survive, you must stop crying, and shut down”. Before it stops crying, however, the baby must adopt the knowledge that it has been abandoned.
The outcome of this is very serious. Taylor links it to Martin Seligman’s theory of ‘learned helplessness ‘. He argues that if a child cries and its cries go unheeded and its needs unmet, it begins to detach from reality. Instinctively it feels, “No matter how hard I try, nothing changes, and no relief comes. So why try anymore? My efforts are in vain anyway”. Such knowledge is overwhelming to a baby, and in order to survive, it represses it into unconsciousness, and tries to numb itself to sleep.
Experiencing such futility to affect its environment or summon a care-giver becomes the basis of what is called ‘learned helplessness’. The child has learned from the beginning that trying to get its needs met, or asserting itself in any way, is futile. Tragically, learned helplessness is often the forerunner of clinical depression. We need to help parents become aware of the fact that their ‘good, well-trained’ babies, may be in danger of becoming depressed, and may continue to be so in later life, unless they go through years of costly therapy. Since prevention is better than cure, it has become essential that we get this information through to new parents as early as possible.
In a paper read at an international conference on Kangaroo Mother Care in 1998, a Cape Town doctor, Dr Nils Bergman , cites the research of Lozoff et al (1977) who studied the way hunter-gatherer peoples raise their children. He says, “Common to all groups is the fact that newborns are carried constantly. They sleep with their mothers, there is immediate response to crying, feeding takes place every one to two hours, and breastfeeding continues for at least two years”. He goes on to urge parents to give this kind of nurturing to their children if the human race is to survive.
For most of us, tragically this information has come too late. What makes me sad, is that although my mother was not a warm, cuddly person, she was very conscientious and wanted to do it right. If the childcare books of her time had told her to hold and comfort me after birth, to pick me up and carry me around close to her body, let me sleep with her, feed me when I was hungry, and not leave me to starve for 8 hours every night, she would have followed their instructions and the story of my life would probably have been very different.
Instead the doctor told her not to pick me up too often and not to feed me under any circumstances from 10.00 pm till 6.00 am, because my stomach ‘needed to rest’. (Some of my most agonized baby primals have been about this terrible nightly ordeal of loneliness and starvation). Because she was a conscientious mother, my mother followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter.
My crying did concern her though, so she phoned the doctor and said, “I can’t leave my baby to cry like this. Shouldn’t I feed her?” His response was, “Whatever you do, don’t feed your baby before 6.00 am, because it’s bad for the baby’s stomach”. So from about 4.00 am every morning, she walked the floor with me for two hours while I cried, but she never fed me. She told me later that it made her feel desperate.
It made me feel desperate too. I was telling her as plainly as I knew how, that I was starving and in pain. Yet it seemed that nothing I did could get her to understand what I needed. This has contributed to problems throughout my life; such as the fear that I will never be understood, no matter how clearly I try to express myself. It also left me with great insecurities about food, and fear of there never being enough. In addition I was left feeling that I was ‘bad’ and undeserving of receiving anything (even food when I was starving), because I could feel my mother’s irritability and resentment at being woken so early each morning.
So in my adult life I have had to battle my way through problems of low self- esteem, feelings of being undeserving, lack of assertiveness, learned helplessness and depression. All this has contributed to my having to spend many years in Primal Therapy, recovering from my childhood, which thankfully, I am doing now.
To help parents, there are several good sites on the internet. Two that I suggest are, The Natural Child Project and The Primal Parenting Page. I recommend them to anyone who is having a baby or who is planning to have one in the future. They give links to sites promoting 'attachment parenting' – keeping the baby in close, loving contact with it's mother's (or father's) body for the early months of life, feeding the baby whenever it is hungry, and allowing it to sleep close to the warm bodies of its parents at night, to meet its needs for touching and closeness. Hopefully, this nurturing and loving style of caring for children will become the parenting of the future, as it was in our distant past. If it doesn't our future is bleak indeed.
Dr Nils Bergman closed his article on 'Kangaroo Mother Care' with these words, ". . . it is a Public Health Imperative. It is the design of the past, and our future depends on it."
The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff
Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League
Nighttime Parenting by William Sears
The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin
The Biology of Love by Arthur Janov
Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt
*Update May 2005: Recent research confirms Taylor’s hypothesis. Brain scans and studies measuring the vital signs and stress hormone levels of babies show that they become measurably traumatised if their needs for love and physical closeness are not adequately met. Sue Gerhardt’s book “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain” (Brunner–Routledge, New York, 2004) lists some of the most recent studies.
Check out Yahoo Group Kangaroo Mother Care