Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why do I...

...keep my babies with me all the time? As in, why don't I leave them with babysitters, or drop them off at daycare or at least a mother's morning out, take trips without them, or even leave them with my husband when I want to go out shopping for a few hours?

The short answer: I'd miss them too much. That and the whole feeding issue.

The long answer:

Biologically, mothers and babies belong together, as one unit. The mother remains the primary habitat for the baby beyond the months of pregnancy. Her body continues to completely nourish the baby for at least the first six months, and then should continue to be the main source of nutriton for at least the next ix months. The baby forms its primary attachment to the mother by being in close constant contact with her.

One of La Leche League's ten belief statements is as follows: "In the early years, the baby has an intense need to be with his mother which is as basic as his need for food." So it is not just about nutrition. Nutrition may be what helps begin the bonding of mother and baby: baby must eat frequently, and mother keeps him close. they experience skin-to-skin contact through nursing, and they begin to form a bond. The baby is learning about love and life from his mother - who he thinks he is actually a part of - through the physical closeness. He is learning to trust, and that consistent person being there all the time for him brings him security. This is what "attachment" is all about.

A baby first becomes attached to his mother, and she to him, in these early months. But the LLL statement above said the early years. This means that baby is not suddenly ready to spend a lot less time with his mother once he hits the end of his first year. The statement is vague on the exact number of years since that will vary from child to child. Independence from the mother is not something that can be forced on a child - it is a gradual process.

Personally, it seems to me that a child any less than about 18-24 months old is not going to understand about long separations from his mother. Some mothers have to work eight hours a day - yes, this is a reality for some. But it is not ideal, in my opinion. As unpopular as it may be for me to say this, I think babies and young children should be at home with their mothers. This is the person they were designed to be with for the vast majority of the time in their early years, and it has been shown to be optimal for their well-being.

Some people say that a mother who will not release her baby or toddler into the care of others is being "overprotective." They try to make it about the mother's needs more than the child's needs. So many mothers are brushed off, saying, "Oh, he doesn't need you - it sounds like you're the one who is needy!" True, a mother does feel a need to be with her nursing baby, because of the need to feed him, and also because of the bond that is there. But most mothers - myself included - are genuinely concerned for their baby's well-being in wanting to keep him close. This is not to say that other people are incompetent and can't care for a baby properly (like great Aunt Ethel who's been after you to keep the baby for a couple days while you go out of town)... just that the mother believes that it is in the baby's best interest to remain with his mother.

This reaction is somewhat understandable in our culture. We are basically taught through our experiences that toddlers, even infants, who cry for their mothers are spoiled and trying to manipulate them. That mothers are replaceable by any child care provider, at any age, and for any length of time. That toddlers who don't fall asleep alone are going to have horrible sleep problems in the future. So, I don't fault people who say, "You need to get a break from that baby!" They usually don't mean any harm - it is just ingrained in our culture, the same way any old lady who sees you with your baby in a store will ask you, "Is he a good baby?"

Babies lack object permanence. When a baby's mother leaves, he does not understand that she will be back. His brain isn't developed to the point of knowing that once she is out of sight, she still exists. It as if she has ceased to exist. The longer the separation, the harder it is on the baby. The baby can even begin to mourn for his mother as if she were dead (I wish I remember where I had read that so I could quote it directly). Even as babies gain object permanence - realizing that things still exist even when not in sight - they still think they are a part of the mother. They don't begin to really view themselves as separate for a while still.

The brain grows at a tremendous rate in the first three years - faster than at any other time. This is especially so in the first two years. So many connections are being made (or not) at this time. The combination of breastmilk and nurturing have been shown to be very important in brain development.

I want to share some quotes on this topic now... the first set of quotes come from Kippley's writings on the First Three Years:

Hugh Riordan, Specialist in Human Communications and Director of The Olive W. Garvey Center of Human Functioning, says, "There are six reactions of children to separation when the mother is not around her child. The pattern may be 1) depression, 2) agitation or distress, 3) rejection, 4) apathy, 5) regression or 6) clinging. Why would a mother do that to her child?. . . When can a child withstand separation from the mother? Up to two years of age is a high anxiety time; from two to three years of age is a lesser anxiety time. This varies with the individual."

Sheila Kippley, in her booklet The Crucial First Three Years, writes, "William Gairdner in his book, The War Against the Family,22 pointed out that three separate research studies conducted at three different major universities all clearly showed that what babies and young children need is l) mother’s availability, 2) mother’s responsiveness to her child’s need for comfort and protection, and 3) mother’s sensitivity to her child’s signals. In other words, the mother has to be there, she has to read the signals of her baby, and she has to respond to her baby in a sensitive manner. Gairdner claims that there is unanimity on this important point: “poorly attached children are sociopaths in the making.” To avoid poorly attached children, one key is good mothering. According to Gairdner, the keys to good mothering, then, are these: availability, responsiveness, and sensitivity. Gairdner also states that “young children need an uninterrupted, intimate, and continuous connection with their mothers, especially in the very early months and years.” With prolonged breastfeeding, the mother has an uninterrupted and continuous relationship with her baby and it’s an intimate relationship as well."

Robert Lee Hotz, in his article “Study: Babies May Need Hugs to Develop Brain,” wrote, “Scientists have known for decades that maternal deprivation can mark children for life with serious behavioral problems, leaving them withdrawn, apathetic, slow to learn, and prone to chronic illness. . . Moreover, new animal research reveals that without the attention of a loving caregiver early in life, some of an infant’s brain cells simply commit suicide.” Mark Smith, a psychologist at the DuPont Merck Research Labs commented, “These cells are committing suicide. Let this be a warning to us humans. The effects of maternal deprivation may be much more profound than we had imagined.”

Harold Voth, M.D., said in the Medical Times in November 1980 (so this is not new stuff!), “A baby must have a mother, a mother who is mature enough to attend to its needs and provide so-called object constancy for a minimum of three years... The mothering function is one of the most important of all human events but, unfortunately, one of the least appreciated or regarded by society.” So true that stay-at-home moms are undervalued in our culture...

This one is from Maria Montessori in The Absorbent Mind: “Mother and child are inseparable… For the mother has to feed her child, and therefore she cannot leave him at home when she goes out. To this need for food is added their mutual fondness and love. In this way, the child’s need for nutrition, and the love that unites these two beings, both combine in solving the problem of the child’s adaptation to the world, and this happens in the most natural way possible. Mother and child are one. Except where civilization has broken down this custom, no mother ever entrusts her child to someone else… Another point is the custom of prolonging the period of maternal feeding. Sometimes this lasts for a year and a half; sometimes for two, or even three years. This has nothing to do with the child’s nutritional needs, because for some time he has been able to assimilate other kinds of food; but prolonged lactation requires the mother to remain with her child, and this satisfies her unconscious need to give her offspring the help of a full social life on which to construct his mind.”

There are lots more great quotes at the link above... I won't post them all here. If you are interested, go read more!

The chapter in the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding titled "Making a Choice" is a good read regarding mother-baby togetherness and the importance of that early relationship between the two. Among other things, it discusses how a young child shows classic signs of grief when separated from his mother. Humberto Nagera, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Montana, is quoted as saying, "When the child is confronted with his mother's absence his automatic response is an anxiety state that on many occasions reaches overwhelming proportions. Repeated traumas of this type in suceptible children will not fail to have serious consequences for their later development... No other animal species will subject their infants to experiences that they are not endowed to cope with, except the human animal."

I believe it was in a Dr. Sears book where I read that he thought it was best if children didn't spend the night away from their parents until they were at least three. That resonated with me way back when I read it, because it immediately brought to mind my own childhood. I am the oldest of four. I don't ever remember my parents leaving us overnight when we were very young (obviously I might not remember this myself, but I would remember for my brothers since they are younger). My mom has told me about the first time I stayed overnight with somebody else - her parents. I have very vague memories of going camping with them. This happened the week before I turned three. Then, the next time my parents went somewhere and had us stay at a friend's house for a few nights was when Tim, my youngest brother, was about three or four years old. I think all four of us stayed with the Tramontes for those few days (they had five kids, so it probably didn't make much of a difference to them to have all of us there too!). Anyway, I just want to say thanks, Mom and Dad!

Of final note: it could be argued that children under the age of three probably won't remember any of it in the future, so it doesn't matter if they aren't with their mother. But the science shows otherwise. The child may not remember, but the imprint of his early years follows him.

I hope this post is coherent - I wrote it in several sittings and want to go to bed now since it is after 11, so I am not proofreading it tonight. Hope it all makes sense!


Kate said...

it is such a struggle to maintain this lifestyle in the "modern world" and i hate it. i admire you for your ability to be so strong in your beliefs.

i've linked this post to my FB page too, b/c it's a message i think all moms need to hear.

Erin said...

You are so right, Kate - the modern world really does make this difficult! Circumstances of people's modern lives plus the pressure to work or to leave one's kids in favor of one's own pursuits is very real. Maybe we can come up with a list of tips for helping moms to deal with this struggle...

That Married Couple said...

Wow, very interesting, and great resources. It's amazing how counter-cultural this seems here, even though this is how it's been done for thousands of years!

Anonymous said...

Maternal deprivation is a sexist doctrine as the ruling paradigm in family law cases in the UK. It is another name for 'tender years doctrine' which fortunately has been tossed aside as idiotic in the US. Children need their father's just as much as moms. In fact single mom homes are the largest incubators of criminals in the US; statistics prove this.

Kate said...

i think self confidence would have to be at the top of the list.

Kate said...

came across this blog via another friend, very interesting one about SIDS and formula/crying it out/etc parenting.

Erin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kris said...

Great post Erin. I agree with several people that said that it's counter-culture in our society, yet it's what really feels right!! I know when mine were little, I HATED leaving them at all, with the exception of running the occasional quick errand. I had to go back to work for a couple of months after our first child was born, until my wonderful husband was able to work our finances so I could stay home. WORST months of my life, being away from him all day. It's a financial sacrifice to stay home, and I know some people can't do it, but it's SO worth it.

Erin said...

mkg, I allowed your comment despite your choice to use the word "idiotic" and despite the fact that you have never commented on my blog before.

Fathers are equally important in a child's life. They are important in different ways. Their importance becomes much more apparent as the child gets older. fathers should be involved from birth, but the mother is the main nurturer in those years, as biology dictates. Did you know a mother's chest will actually adjust in temperature in order to warm or cool her infant when he is placed skin-to-skin against her chest? A father's chest does not adjust like this, although he can still keep his baby warm in this way - but his body doesn't automatically adjust like the mother's. The mother is the infant's natural habitat.

I have no doubt that many troubled individuals come out of homes where only a mother is present. Another statistically-proven fact is that the vast majority of children being raised by only one parent are in fact being raised by the mother and not the father. Children coming from homes with just a father also have a higher risk for problems later in life. A child needs both a mother and a father present in his life in order to have the best chance. I do not condone a mother thinking she can do it all alone. In fact, i am opposed to divorce for no reason - where there is an abuse issue, that is one thing, but for the most part, parents should stay together and work it out for their children's sakes. But I stand by my point that it is the mother who matters most in the first few years. The father plays a very important role in his support for the mother at this time, and he gradually builds a relationship with his children as they get older.

Your use of the word "sexist" had me wanting to discount your comment right off. To insist that male and female are not only equal but the same - both equipped to raise babies equally - denies biology. Women were created with breasts and women were not - it is plain that babies were intended to be fed and nurturted at the breast by their mothers. I am not familiar with the legal issues, but I would hope that a judge would not insist that a nursing mother give her baby over to the father for the whole weekend each week. I am sure it happens, to the detriment of the baby. A father's role is so important, but pushing it in infancy is not the way to go about it, in my opinion. The baby with a strong primary bond with mother will develop into other relationships with everyone else as he matures.

Tiny Actions said...

Thanks so much for posting these "Why do I..." articles. It's good to see all this laid out in words. Keep them coming.

Also, I love it when people are finding that I don't want to fly the coop and get away from my young kids. They find it so so strange and say things like, "You'll spoil your kids." Yet on the same token, they are amazed at how well adjusted my older ones are, and that the baby never seems to cry and be cranky. Hmmm...I wonder if this is the way God intended things to be?

And you make a good point at highlighting that a child's brain grows so much the first three years of their life. That growth is spurred on by taking everything in that they experience. And if the child is left to feel and process all that separation that you discussed, how is their brain to grow?

Keep on blogging!
Sue--who needs to tend to her sweet wee one.

Carrie said...

Beautifully written and great response to the "commenter."

I truly truly TRULY agree with everything you have written in this post and I loved reading the statistics you presented. Especially the one about brain cells committing suicide! wow!