Henrik Norholt on December 05, 2010

Human Nature and Early Experience

This report is from the symposium on October 10-12, 2010 at Norte Dame University addressing the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness . The conference was held to address the potential causes of the current epidemic increases in childhood diseases. These are a few of the many diverse presentations that I wish to present:

A 3-month-old baby conducting her mother’s singing of a lullaby.

A vast study demonstrating the links between childhood experiences and health in adulthood.

Monkeys with bad genes that turn out fine when receiving good mothering.

Attending this symposium awoke feelings of both deep concerns about how many parents in the so-called developed countries, including the United States, give birth and care for their babies. It also inspired me and strengthened my dedication to the work we are doing at ERGObaby and also the work that we share in common with the Attachment Parenting International Organization.

The symposium brought a difficult message to the forefront. First the concern part, and please brace yourselves for some disturbing reading  I am quoting the organizers’ background information from the conference:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the ways we are rearing our children today are not the ways humans are designed to thrive. The ill effects of these missing ancestral practices are becoming evident as children’s well being in the USA is worse than 50 years ago and is among the worst in the industrialized world (20th in family and peer relationships and 21st in health and safety, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). We have epidemics of ADHD, anxiety and depression among the young, indeed all age groups, according to United States Department of Health and Human Services. Too many children are arriving at school with poor social skills, poor emotion regulation, and habits that do not promote pro-social behaviors. Rates of young children whose behavior displays aggression, delinquency, or hyperactivity are estimated to be as high as 25%. The expulsion rate of prekindergarten children and the number of children under age 5 with psychosocial problems or on psychotropic medications have increased dramatically.

The organizers continued by describing some of the ills also besetting adults:

Second, “in recent years a host of public, personal and social health problems have been skyrocketing in the USA, and increasingly around the world, for which science does not have consistent or reliable answers (e.g., psychological problems such as ADHD, autism, anxiety and depression; not to mention psychosomatic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and a variety of autoimmune disorders.

Now what might this whole catalogue of human misery have to do with attachment parenting and the ways we choose to give birth and care for our babies?

Over the last 10-15 years, researchers working in such diverse fields as animal studies, human psychology, neurobiology and anthropology have proven in a great variety of studies how important the early life conditions are for optimal brain and body system development. And what is more, even the genetic heritage the genes – can be influenced substantially by the caregiving one receives. As an example, animals with a gene that would normally predispose them to e.g. depression can turn out completely normal, if they receive a sufficiently caring upbringing.

Given that there are and have been so many views over the years historically and originating from authoritative psychologists and prominent pediatricians on what the most optimum early life conditions are for a human baby, the organizers chose as their point of departure and basic frame of understanding the term “Environment of Early Adaptedness .

What do the organizers mean with by “Environment of Early Adaptedness ?

It refers to the presumptive conditions under which our brains and body systems are likely to have evolved during the Pleistocene period (1.800.000-10.000 years B.C.), conditions which, albeit theoretically inferred, characterize over 99% of human existence in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

Substantive evidence of this type of environment and style of caring for children comes from studies of foraging communities around the world. As anthropologists summarize “Environment of Early Adaptedness characteristics for infants and young children, we can be confident that young children in foraging cultures:

  • go through natural births (there is no alternative)
  • are nursed frequently
  • are held, touched, or kept near others almost constantly
  • are frequently cared for by individuals other than their mothers (fathers and grandmothers, in particular) and sometimes by older siblings
  • experience prompt responses to their fusses and cries
  • normally continue breastfeeding up to 2-5 years
  • enjoy multiage play groups in early childhood

These environmental characteristics generally match the early experiences of highly social mammals (animals that give birth to live off-spring and nourish them with milk, especially primates).

Unfortunately, many of these practices have been abandoned in the USA and in other Western countries. The downward trends of child outcomes mentioned above suggest that these ancient practices, that can be matched in our mammalian cousins, should be carefully examined to determine how necessary each one, or in combination, they may be for optimal development. This was exactly the aim of the experts presenting at the symposium: to shed light on these issues.

The most impressive point about the range of researchers presenting was that their conclusions were in fact backed by substantial amounts of actual serious research from investigations that were conducted by observing what happens in animals and humans when the conditions or principles described above are compromised. With this I mean to stress that it was not some armchair philosophies or personally biased opinions about how children should be raised, because “this is how I was raised and it never did me any harm . It was very real sober observations of what happens over the years when, for example, children are breastfed and when they are not.

One of the key take-away messages is that nobody is intentionally making clear to us that our ways of caring for children are so different from those of our ancient ancestors. The way we have arranged ourselves, our ways of giving birth, of accommodating (or not accommodating) breastfeeding, of providing nurturing touch, etc. have just gradually changed in the name of some higher principles, such as safety, comfort, career or just plain lack of thinking things through.

This means that you as a parent must put a conscious effort into making up your own mind as to which basic principles you would like to adhere to in your birthing and caring for your child. Since society does not automatically support these principles, it will be up to you to commit to following them. With society and sometimes even family and friends who do not understand or support your child caring choices, it can be a bit of a struggle to follow the principles that are also prescribed by Attachment Parenting International guidelines.

In such times of struggle, it may be worth it to know that the principles are not just someone’s mere personal idiosyncrasies. They are based on the inspiration and observation from our close animal relatives as well as our own ancestral practice. More than that, most of these principles described have been examined carefully by conscientious scientists over many years in relation to their influence on child development and have been borne out by their research.

This certainly cannot be said for such advice as “you need to feed your baby with formula milk, at 4 months, your milk is not enough ; “leave your baby to cry or he’ll be twisting you around his little finger ; “leave your baby by herself, you shouldn’t be holding her so much or she will never become independent or “stop breastfeeding your baby, she is already 6 months old .

On a final more positive note, the most touching presentation was given by one of the largest and most creative figures in baby developmental psychology, Prof. Colwyn Trevarthe of Edinburgh University. He showed a short video clip of a baby lying on his back, waving his left hand randomly, while his mother was singing a well-known lullaby to him.

Prof. Trevartens current main interest is babies’ sense of musicality, so he had the film and sound recording slowed down whereupon he asked a professional classical music conductor to investigate whether there was any connection between the hand movements of the baby and the mother’s singing. To the conductor’s amazement, the baby was conducting his mother’s lullaby as professionally as any music conductor, being a fraction of a second ahead of his mother’s singing in his hand signaling and rhythm indication.

I later asked prof. Trevarthen how he would sum up his main insights from a lifetime of work with babies and he smilingly answered: “That the baby is a person!

Further resources:

Henrik Norholt

Dr. Henrik Norholt is a member of The World Association of Infant Mental Health. He holds a Ph.D. from the LIFE faculty of Copenhagen University and is a resident of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been studying the effects of baby carrying as it relates to child psychological and motor development through naturalistic studies since 2001.

He is actively engaged in the study of current and past research into baby carrying through his large international network of family practitioners, midwives, obstetricians, pediatricians and child psychologists and shared his insights with the subscribers to Ergobaby’s blog.