Someday when I’m all grown up, you’re what I want to be;
Then I will have a little child, who’ll want to follow me.
And I would want to lead just right, and know that I was true;
So walk a little slower, Daddy, for I must follow you.1
Birthing and early nurturing practices have changed enormously in recent years. While women still give birth out on the savannah as they did half a million years ago, by the 1930s the birth of a Western baby was treated almost as if it were a disease2. The mother-to-be was hospitalised, the father sent out of the way, and midwives rather than their own mothers did their best to ease the pain of the mother-to-be who had been given precious little prenatal advice on when, and how, to push. Once born the baby was immediately placed in an isolation ward, and only given to the mother for feeding. The father saw his child only if he wore a mask. The baby could have been traumatised by the sterile world into which he found himself after the warmth, noise and security of the womb. Mothers were encouraged to rest and keep their legs up in hospital for a fortnight or more. Now, two or three generations later, all that has changed; today’s young mothers are far more like their African ancestors in having been well briefed on what to do, are fit enough to walk around hours after the birth, and probably go home the next day.
There is still a social aversion in England to breast feeding3. Much of this goes back to attitudes in pre-revolutionary Paris where breast feeding was seen as such a ‘turn-off’ to husbands and lovers that aristocratic women almost invariably assigned the early feeding of their babies to ‘wet nurses’. Baby milk formulas became immensely popular early in the twentieth century. Mothers were positively encouraged not to breastfeed their children. Bottle feeding became a sign of social progression, and a step towards the liberation of women. Science seemed to readily endorse this as bottle-fed babies put on weight much more quickly. Only recently have nutritionists recognised the advantage to breast-fed babies of putting on weight more slowly so enabling them to regulate their energy better, and adapt to different metabolic rates, and sleeping practices4.
Breast-fed children are more emotionally resilient, less anxious, and years later less prone to diabetes. Breast feeding cuts the risk of respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, and lowers the risk of food and other allergies5. Breast-fed children have been shown on average to have greater verbal, correlative and memory abilities as pre-schoolers, and significantly higher I.Q. scores while in school6. Currently the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that babies should be fed solely at the breast for the first six months. In Britain fewer than 10% of babies enjoy such natural processes for as long7.
In today’s world young mothers are unnerved by such research. They desperately want to do the best for their child, but what about their own well-being — their careers, and their ability to put money in the bank? Such worries doesn’t mean that today’s mothers are any more self-centred than were our savannah-dwelling ancestors. The life of those ancestral hunter/gatherers was easier, for when they worked to get food their children were always with them, or being watched over by relatives, and always in a rich social setting, as it was in England before the Industrial Revolution. Today’s young mothers have to make a choice between devoting themselves entirely to their baby, or to themselves. The evidence is that they need, not just want, both8. It is not simply that post-natal depression can be brought on by the fear of an unknown, lonely life style. It is that babies themselves need parents who are happy and fulfilled, for babies benefit greatly from being brought up amongst busy, purposeful and cheerful people. The ‘career woman’ of today simply needs what most of her ancestors had until the invention of the suburbs (in the days before men went off early to work and came home late) “to be part of things, to be engaged in a social setting and to take part in working life, whilst enjoying the care and raising of children”9. Mother and Toddler clubs aren’t enough.
Saying that “breast is best” is almost a metaphor for all that is warm, secure, comfortable, reassuring and desirable; it’s not simply the quality of the mother’s milk, or the nature of the mother/child bonding which it implies — it’s the loving, caring, responsible, fun-loving atmosphere that makes a mother so relaxed when she is feeding her baby which is of such immense significance to the growing child. A home flooded with such emotions is the best start any child could ever have10. At birth the baby is very much still ‘a work in progress’ especially as far as its emotions are concerned. The stress response, the neurotransmitters, the neural pathways that enable our most intimate relationships to work, and the vital pre-frontal cortex of the brain, are hardly even in place at birth and they certainly need activation if they’re to work properly11. It is as if the plumbers and electricians are still fitting out the new ‘home’ and working on it when it is ‘born’. Taking occupancy of a new house the first thing its owner has to do is to set the thermostats on the boiler to come on and off at the time, and temperature, he or she determines: then to set the separate valves on each radiator so that bedrooms are cool, living rooms warm, and bath rails hot. Get that right and the house will be a delight to live in. Get it wrong and it will cause endless difficulties. That is exactly what is happening as the baby starts to try out its emotional connections. To “set” its thermostats appropriately it has to mimic the emotions of those around it. Unfortunate is the baby surrounded by adults whose emotions are so ‘off-the-wall’ that the young baby has no way of setting its thermostat to normal. In the England of 2006 35% of children have such fragile, insecure emotional reactions12. 88: 28/08/06