The Case for Instinctual Mothering
I spend a great deal of time on web forums and news sites reading about issues pertinent to today’s parents. Sometimes, I find great information, but other times I have to walk away from the computer in an attempt to halt my suddenly rising blood pressure. There is so much unfortunate advice being passed around – advice that many mothers have been duped into believing, and that still persists no matter how much the evidence has stacked up against it.
It saddens me that we as women, as mothers, have so little trust in our innate ability to meet our children’s needs. I suppose it starts with pregnancy. The minute we learn we’re with child, we’re taught that we need to rush off to the doctor to make sure everything is okay. I don’t want to take away from the value of expert medical advice – I’m so glad that it’s available when we need it, but when did every pregnancy become a medical issue? Pregnancy is a normal state of being for women, and complications are the exception, not the rule.
Next comes birth, and we’re terrified that we’re not going to know what to do – that something will go wrong. The baby will be “too big,” I won’t know how to push – all of these fears creep up, most with very little basis in reality, because our bodies do know what to do. Next, we fear the early days as new parents: I won’t be able to breastfeed, I won’t wake up when the baby needs me. The reality is that virtually every healthy woman is perfectly capable of breastfeeding (see The Complete Book of Breastfeeding, page 24), and anyone who has made it through the first days with a newborn knows that it’s so hard to fall asleep and stay asleep in the first place, the idea of not waking up is hardly a concern.
Unfortunately, the fear and doubting, for many mothers doesn’t seem to stop there. There are so many bits of terrible advice that have endured, and that have women burying their instincts so deep I don’t know how they can see straight. The following is a short list of my favorite (and by my favorite I mean the ones that make my blood boil most furiously) counter-intuitive mothering myths and links to research affirming the correctness of our natural instincts.
1. If you hold your child too often, they’ll get used to it and you will spoil them.
Get used to what? Having their needs met in a caring, timely manner? Simply looking at an infant gives even strangers the desire to hold them. They are perfection and innocence wrapped in a blanket. There is nothing I can imagine wanting to hold more. Nevermind when they actually need you for something – then the urge to swoop them up is almost blinding. Yet we’re told we shouldn’t always give in? I actually, honestly, hear women say this and mean it. I can hardly think of something that feels more wrong than ignoring my child’s desire to be held.
I love this article over at the Natural Child Project, “If You Hold That Baby All the Time…” Here’s a great excerpt:
“According to research by James Prescott, a developmental neuropsychologist and cross cultural psychologist, “vestibular-cerebellar stimulation (which happens when we carry our babies) is the most important sensory system for the development of “basic trust” in the affectional bonding between mother and infant. It establishes the biological and psychological foundations for all other human relationships.” We have learned that carrying infants is a vital part of nature’s biological plan for mother-infant bonding, and that it is critical to the development of trust, empathy, compassion and conscience. Carrying or wearing an infant in a sling, keeping the infant in constant human contact, and breast feeding on demand are the biological design for optimal physical, intellectual and emotional human development. Research confirms that carrying human infants develops their intelligence and their capacity for trust, affection, intimacy, and love and happiness.
2. Babies only wake at night out of habit after a certain age. They don’t actually need anything, so you should allow them to get back to sleep on their own, even if that means some crying.
Yes, people actually suggest this. I have heard it so many times that it makes me want to scream. Thankfully, we now know that our instincts were right all along. Leaving a baby to cry actually damages their developing brain, as many of the articles in this great list of sleep training research resources on Peaceful Parenting discuss.
3. If you don’t spank your children, they will be terribly behaved and uncontrollable.
Where anyone ever got the idea that the way to teach children not to engage in one unacceptable behavior is by modeling another for them – that violence could ever teach values or good behavior – is beyond me. Thankfully, research is again backing up the unadulterated, instinctual response – and hitting children is not it. As a recent study discussed on physorg.com explains, spanking often leads to aggressive behavior in young children. If that’s not intuitive, I don’t know what is.
4. You need to amputate a part of your infant son’s body to keep him from masturbating and subsequently going blind. Oh wait, that was sort of ridiculous, we mean to keep him from being overly promiscuous. Er, just kidding, it’s actually to protect him against STI’s like AIDS.
This is one of the single most heartbreaking things I can think of – a mother being convinced that she should have a part of her perfectly born son’s body cut off just days, or even hours after the exhausting experience of emerging into the world. Thank goodness circumcision rates in the US continue to decline - it’s a wonder that it has taken so long, given that the American Academy of Pediatrics first admitted that “there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period” in 1971 (source). Over at Peaceful Parenting, there is also a wealth of information on why doctors are now rejecting circumcision as HIV prevention. Again, the natural instinct of protecting our children from harm guides us toward best practices.
These are just a few examples – the list goes on and on. Conventional wisdom, which is generally not so wise at all, is usually based on transient concerns of the time, or sadly and far too often on the needs of special interests that seek to capitalize on the lack of confidence we mothers place in ourselves. (See this PhD in Parenting post for one very recent example that is not at all surprising, but nevertheless extremely frustrating.)
It’s time for us as mothers to trust ourselves, and to make our own decisions, based on sound judgment and what we intuitively feel is right for our individual children, because we know them better than any doctor, nurse, or ‘expert’ ever could. New mommy or seasoned mom of several children – it doesn’t matter – it is our job to make the decisions we feel are best for our children, and our instincts are there for a reason.