One of the main aspects of being a natural parent, is to tend to the child’s natural needs. As I am sure you are well aware of, babies come into this life with a set of abilities and expectations of the world around them. Many of those are simply called reflexes, and every woman with long hair holding a baby in her arms will have felt that full grasp – pun intended. And for those of you who haven’t: babies can get a really strong grip if they get a fist-ful of hair, and they won’t let go. They can’t, either, because they have yet to develop control over their muscles. It’s all reflexes, remnants from the time they had to cling to their mother’s fur to stay alive.
A lot have changed since then. We have strollers, we have babybags, we have gyms of all kinds… But genetically, we haven’t changed a bit since the stone age. We are still wired to act on those same instincts our ancestors did. Your baby has no idea of what new equipment that’s waiting for him when he comes out of your womb – and frankly, I don’t think he cares much.
It has been said that the first three months of a child’s life could be considered to be a fourth semester. Compared to other species offspring, ours is a fairly underdeveloped one when it gets born. This is due to the fact that the child’s head would become to big for the woman to be able to birth, as we have a larger brain than any other animal on this planet. But that doesn’t mean the baby all of a sudden should do without the tactile stimulation, the sounds of mom’s breath and heartbeat, and the warmth of her skin – it still needs that, as evidenced by the intense urge to hang on for dear life once it gets a hold of anything that reminds her of a warm, safe body.
Unfortunately, a lot has happened in our culture over the centuries that has left us deprived and unable to fill the child’s most basic need for skin contact and human stimulation. We have become afraid of cuddling the baby too much, lest he becomes spoiled and needy. But have you ever gotten less hungry by being denied food? Less thirsty by being denied anything to drink? What on earth, then, would make anybody think that a baby would become more independent if he is denied dependence?
In a book I read some years ago, the Swedish special educational needs teacher Ylva Ellneby speaks about the importance of cuddling. The book title speaks for itself: «If You Don’t Touch Me, I’ll Die» (sadly, I don’t think it’s been translated to English). One of the stories that stuck with me after reading it, was the one about the orphanage in an underdeveloped country. Most of the children would just wither away and die, but the one child, placed closest to the door, would thrive more than any of the others did. The reason? One of the very few caretakers in that orphanage would walk by when she went in and out of the room. And every now and then, she would caress that child, just a little bit, on her way past. That was enough to keep that child alive a bit longer, to make her develop a little bit better than the rest. The other children were not that lucky.
In the more recent days, I’m sure you already heard of the «kangaroo care» practised by some hospitals and midwives. It seems that a premature baby thrives if he’s being tucked into his parents clothing, and kept close to the skin like in a kangaroo pouch. Actually, in one study the doctors noticed a «precipitous drop in neonatal mortality». This method obviously does the premature babies a lot of good.
So, how does this relate to babies born at term in a caring, stable environment, then?
Well, a lot, actually.
Given that a baby will go through an enormous development the first years of his life (it’s kinda weird to think that your suckling newborn will actually walk in a year or so, right?), he’d be better left at it, instead of using up too much energy wondering where the next cuddle will come from or to battle the deprivation of such. A child who never has to worry about those things will quite simply have more time and energy to do what she’s supposed to, instead of being depressed or acting out.
Another thing is that cuddling actually releases chemicals in the baby’s body, that are needed to help him become a stable, happy and content grown-up. A small child cannot calm himself, he needs his parents to do that for him. And if they don’t, then he won’t be able to either, making it far more likely that he’ll turn to drugs or alcohol for that calming effect. And you’d better beware: you have that one chance to make this right in your child’s life. According to Margot Sunderland, author and children’s mental health expert, there comes a point where it actually gets too late.
«If you’re not very careful about comforting them in the first few years of life, you can blight this system,» Sutherland warns. Source
After that point, the hormone oxytocin simply won’t kick in, even if cuddle are introduced. And that can potentially disturb the rest of your child’s social and emotional life, as it is that hormone that makes one able to feel trust and bond to another person.
It can be quite hard to overcome the cuddling hurdle, especially if this was how you were brought up yourself and you were raised to think that this is the right way to bring up kids. It’s hard enough to do anything without a good role model, let alone if you have to battle your own demons from the past too. But this one will be worth the fight, and your future son- or daughter-in-law will be forever thankful if you do.
And so will you child.
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