The Vital Touch

vitaltouchHow intimate contact with your baby leads to healthier, happier development (Holt, Owl Books, 1997) amazon_buynow

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Introduction (Excerpt)

In most of the world, mother and infant are together most of the day.  But here in the U.S. mothers and babies are apart most of the day.  This fact ranks our infants among the least held on this earth.

In nature's nativity scene, mother's arms have always been baby's bed, breakfast, transportation, even entertainment, and, for most of the world's babies, they still are.  For more than a million years, mothers have carried their infants almost continuously, slept with them at night, nursed them frequently the first two to four years of life, and offered immediate comfort.

But in a blink of evolutionary time, we've altered the way humans have always lived on this earth, straying far from the intimate connectedness firmly rooted in forces of natural selection.  In the US, most of us cache our infants in a container, transport them primarily in buggies, breastfeed for a short period, if at all, and often sleep in separate rooms.  When they cry, our first reaction is frequently to offer a pacifier or shake their buggies before we choose to pick them up.  Many of us return to work before our infants complete the infancy period.

With our babies more often in a container than in our arms, our infants are "at odds with their evolution," as anthropologist James McKenna put it.  This is no small problem.  We may live in the Cyberspace Age, but our brains remain grounded in the Stone Age, the way humans have lived for 99% of our existence on this earth.  Our brain, particularly the old mammalian part called the limbic system, which governs our emotions, is ancient.  "Darwinian Man, though well-behaved, At best is only a monkey shaved," says a W. S. Gilbert song; scientists are now confirming this tongue-in-cheek lyric.  So old is our brain that humans are 98.4% genetically identical to chimps and early humans.  This means that nearly all our biochemistry and physiology are fine-tuned to conditions of life that existed when we were hunters and gatherers.  And in that lifestyle, babies were kept on or near their mothers, since the closer to mother, the farther out of harm's way.  After eons of such behavior, the baby's brain evolved through natural selection to expect life to be "a womb with a view," as Ashley Montagu phrased it, with the mother's brain hard-wired to provide that closeness.

Our silent and most potent language, touch is the medium through which parent and infant communicate and become attached, each tender touch strengthening the bond between them.  Touch nurtures our infants' psychological growth; stimulates their physical and mental growth; helps assure smoothness of physiological functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion; enhances their self-concept, body awareness, and sexual identity; boosts their immune system; and even enhances the grace and stability of their movement.  Experiments done with infant rats, cats, and monkey show that, if cuddled, stroked, and licked, these animals grow up more gentle, peaceful, smarter, bigger, and healthier; if deprived of gentle touch, they grow up antisocial, miserable, sicker, smaller, less able to remember, less able to cope, and less able to mother.  We've reason to believe humans are no different.

In fact, touch is literally a baby's lifeline.  Able to thrive without hearing, without vision, and without smell, infants lacking affectionate touch literally perish from a syndrome called, appropriately, failure-to-thrive.

Granted, we cannot, nor would we want to return to our primeval past and hold our babies all day, which would exhaust and bore the average parent.  Nor do we need to.  Few babies demand round-the-clock contact and no longer do we fear, if we put them down, they will be eaten by predators.  Furthermore, humans are marvelously flexible and adaptable to a broad range of parenting styles.

But this flexibility is constrained by the patterns stamped into our DNA.  For though culture modifies instinctual patterns, it doesn't remove them:  We can vary our behavior from these original patterns, but we can't alter our basic human nature.  Carrying our babies to the car in a container, out of the car in a container, through the mall in a container, into the restaurant in a container, back to the car in a container, and home to a container, so that objects define our baby's existence more so than our body, is not just a step away from tradition.  It is a cataclysmic change far out of step with the rhythmic pas de deux to which our babies' minds and bodies were choreographed.

This book is not a parenting how-to.  This book is about the continuous battle between our genes and our culture, between wanting intimacy with our babies and being discouraged from getting close, and how that friction stresses the very fabric that holds the mother-baby relationship together.

Part I begins by explaining how the power of touch affects birthing practices, newborn stability, the quality of mother-infant attachment, how and how much sensory stimulation our babies receive, and even the speed at which they get up and crawl away from our arms.

Part II discusses the cultural habits that put us out of touch with our infants:  all the containers in which we nest our babies; our prudish sense of our body, which can lead to a withholding of affection, unsuccessful nursing, and a distortion of normal sexual development; our lack of support for the nursing mother; and our taboos against co-sleeping.

Part III discusses how modern parents can compromise between nature's call for closeness to their babies and our culture's plea for distance.