pic courtesy of fertilefoods.comIt never ceases to amaze me how humans in the 'civilised' world are so eager to distance themselves from most aspects of natural parenting. It’s as though we are trying to rise above our primate cousins and remove all traces of the ape in our children. I recently watched a nature show which told the story of an orphaned monkey. Its human foster parents took it to bed with them, fed it on demand, cuddled it and wore it in a sling constantly. They said they were just trying to provide it with as natural a monkey experience as possible. The first thing I thought was that I am instinctively being a monkey mother to my daughter. This led me to compare the parenting styles of other primates to our own.
Monkey babies are usually born at night and are immediately cradled by their mothers and brought to the breast. When the placenta detaches naturally and is expelled, the monkey mother eats it and the cord, so the baby is attached to it’s original source of oxygen for the first few crucial minutes of life. In their first few days of life they are not held by any other monkey. The matriarch will generally come for an inspection but even she is not allowed to hold the baby. Monkey mothers sleep with their babies and feed them all the time. They carry them wherever they go. Monkeys in the wild rarely or never abandon their babies. On the other hand, monkeys in captivity regularly abandon their babies – which shows how easily human intervention – sometimes just human observation – can disrupt the delicate balance between good and bad monkey parenting.
Photo ©2010 Patti Ramos Photography. Used with permission.
In most of the western world the human baby, instead of being welcomed into warm, loving arms and a softly lit environment, is usually born into the sterile, bright, loud and very unnatural environment of a hospital. If the baby has been lucky enough to have been born vaginally, she or he is still likely to have their head yanked on as they emerge, their cord prematurely cut, forcing the brand new creature to gasp for air, and for the first face it sees to be one of a stranger with a mask and cap on. When the baby is born by c – section, it is given an even ruder awakening, and none of the chemical and physiological advantages of a natural birth. Whatever the method of birth, baby is then usually removed from its mother, scrubbed, weighed, given painful eye drops, injected with vitamin K and wrapped before it is finally allowed to be held by its mother. It can take as long as four hours before mother and baby are reunited. The tiny thing is often groggy from the painkillers given to the mother during labour, or stressed from unnaturally intense contractions caused by Pitocin. Although some hospitals are allowing mothers to stay with their babies, it is still unusual for babies to be laid skin to skin with their mothers. And almost none will allow mother and baby to forego the weighing and other ‘checks’ that happen at birth.
Breastfeeding – if it happens at all – is considered non essential. Mothers are still encouraged to send their tiny new babies to the nursery where they may or may not be given formula or glucose water by the nurses, thereby potentially destroying the breastfeeding relationship. If the baby is allowed to room in with the mother, co sleeping is usually frowned upon and plastic bassinets are placed at the mothers bedsides. Mothers are often told that they need to train their new babies, that they can be put on a schedule and fed four hourly from birth. Mothers who ignore this advice and feed on demand are often told they are ‘spoiling their new babies. Babies are given pacifiers, dummy breasts that they are encouraged to suck on between feedings to ‘satiate their suckling urge’, further undermining breastfeeding by potentially causing nipple confusion.
Human babies are also artificially immunised and given routine blood checks, these can be painful and traumatic and are arguably totally unnecessary. In some parts of the world mothers of boys are asked if they want to have their newborn’s perfectly healthy foreskins removed – this is usually done without sufficient anaesthetic or even with no anaesthetic at all as doctors are often told in medical school that newborns don’t feel pain.
When the parents finally go home the baby is usually placed in a separate room from its parents, in a crib or cot. Some parents will force their babies from birth to feed according to a schedule and ignore the cries between scheduled feedings. Even the parents who don’t grit their teeth and let their little one cry will usually feed the baby and then leave it to sleep alone, without the comforting smell and voice of its mother nearby.
What would a monkey say if it could talk? Imagine a chimp mother who had the ability to comment on human parenting. Would she applaud the fact that we have managed to train our babies to eat only when we are willing to allow them to, and to sleep far enough away that we aren’t bothered by their night time noises? Would she marvel at the technology that has allowed us to forego natural childbirth? Would she congratulate us on inventing a substitute for breast milk so that we can leave our babies with other humans and go back to work? Somehow I think not. I think she would tell us that as a species, we aren’t very good at mothering.