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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 Breastfeedingpage 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.

Obviously I’m a bit fired up at the moment, but I would love to hear a story about a time that you followed your instincts as a parent.  Also, If you feel that the moms in your life could use a bit of encouragement to trust in themselves, you can share this post quickly and easily in a variety of places – just see the icons just above the comments section below.

17 Responses to The Case for Instinctual Mothering

  • kim C. says:

    first of all, I totally love your writing! and am so grateful for your mind and point of view. and plan to come back and share my own instinctual parenting decisions. starting from pregnancy on. and I agree with you one hundred percent that new born babies do not need to be going through some kind of cosmetic surgery, I am so glad that here in florida there is a bill to stop routine infant circumcision, the argument that too many mothers (especially non english speaking immigrants, are having their boys circumcised against their wishes) I even have a friend that in her recovery from a c-sec was having a hard time reading the papers to sign, and although she was very clear with her OB not to circumcise, the OB just assumed she changed her mind when the consent form was accidently signed.

    the florida bill, although not against circumcision or about the human rights protection of baby boys (even though we have laws to protect baby girls from any genital cutting, no matter how "mild" it might be) only wants to stop it in the infant period, especially on babies in ICU and premies, and while they are still in diapers (given that the infection rate is high) and while they are too small for safe anesthetic and have less circulating blood, therefore higher chance of hemmorage.

    besides young boys have tight foreskin that is not met to retract and thus very clean and protected and easy to care for during the infant period.

    I do hope the bill gets passed. Anyway, I just thought I would share.

  • Annicles says:

    This is a very interesting post and one very close to my heart.

    I do have a "however" though. I hope you don't mind!

    I started writing from a personal point of view but it went on too long so I'll just write my conclusions!

    My "however" is that there can be a time when any of your firmly held beliefs crumble before the reality of rearing children, particularly when one has more than 1 child. My first babe was perfectly reared – held when she wanted, fed on demand, I followed her routine and it all worked. It didn't when I had the second and third baby. Unfortunately for both mother and second or more babies, the relationship between them is not so simple because there are other children to consider. I actually feel that the subsequent children grow up to be the more adaptable, calmer, happier children in the family because they have had to fit in right from the beginning. The eldest child has to go from being the only one to having to wait and it is very hard.

    Personally, I think we would find child-rearing easier if we lived in more tightly knit communities where there are always older children to be looked after too.

    My other thought is that there may be times when the mother does not act in the way she feels is best. She may be so tired that she does slap a little hand or backside in response to some testing behaviour, she may pull the pillow over her head and sob herself because she can't stand to get up again, she may put the baby down in his cot and walk away rather than carry the baby around any more, just for a few minutes because she feels as though her back and her head might explode.

    I am that mother – it didn't destroy any of my children. We have a fantastic relationship now, my babes are now 10, 8 and 5 years old. Things are much calmer and easier now, despite there being a whole raft of new issues!

    My real message here, is – do not beat yourself. You cannot be perfect, you can be good enough.

  • melissa joanne says:

    Kim, that is fantastic – I really hope that bill passes! Thank you for the kind words – I look forward to hearing about your journey in instinctual parenting.

    Anna, great points as always. It is true that despite our best intentions, and any amount of 'knowing better', we will still make mistakes. "You cannot be perfect, you can be good enough." – that's such a beautiful way to put it!

  • melissa says:

    Kim, that is fantastic – I really hope that bill passes! Thank you for the kind words – I look forward to hearing about your journey in instinctual parenting.

    Anna, great points as always. It is true that despite our best intentions, and any amount of 'knowing better', we will still make mistakes. "You cannot be perfect, you can be good enough." – that's such a beautiful way to put it!

  • Heather says:

    Basically all of my parenting is instinctive, though some programmed instincts are constantly being fought, such as reacting with violence and impatience. The first year is pretty easy for instincts. With two it was harder, that's for sure, but so was doing it with PPD and bond damage from the epidural I needed after 8 hours of 'transition.' Still, I know that I did better than my best, because I didn't let myself give into the damage done to my instincts by the medicalization of my birth.

  • janeen says:

    what a breath of fresh air… i loved reading this… it's so nice to read something and relate to it in values and know that there are people out there that "get it" such as yourself…

  • neen says:

    what a breath of fresh air… i loved reading this… it's so nice to read something and relate to it in values and know that there are people out there that "get it" such as yourself…

  • melissa joanne says:

    Heather and Janeen, thank you both for your thoughts! I love that feeling that there are other moms who "get it", too – it's always nice to know you're not alone in your thinking!

  • melissa says:

    Heather and Janeen, thank you both for your thoughts! I love that feeling that there are other moms who "get it", too – it's always nice to know you're not alone in your thinking!

  • melissa joanne says:

    Heather and Janeen, thank you both for your thoughts! I love that feeling that there are other moms who "get it", too – it's always nice to know you're not alone in your thinking!

  • Heather says:

    Basically all of my parenting is instinctive, though some programmed instincts are constantly being fought, such as reacting with violence and impatience. The first year is pretty easy for instincts. With two it was harder, that's for sure, but so was doing it with PPD and bond damage from the epidural I needed after 8 hours of 'transition.' Still, I know that I did better than my best, because I didn't let myself give into the damage done to my instincts by the medicalization of my birth.

  • kim C. says:

    first of all, I totally love your writing! and am so grateful for your mind and point of view. and plan to come back and share my own instinctual parenting decisions. starting from pregnancy on. and I agree with you one hundred percent that new born babies do not need to be going through some kind of cosmetic surgery, I am so glad that here in florida there is a bill to stop routine infant circumcision, the argument that too many mothers (especially non english speaking immigrants, are having their boys circumcised against their wishes) I even have a friend that in her recovery from a c-sec was having a hard time reading the papers to sign, and although she was very clear with her OB not to circumcise, the OB just assumed she changed her mind when the consent form was accidently signed.

    the florida bill, although not against circumcision or about the human rights protection of baby boys (even though we have laws to protect baby girls from any genital cutting, no matter how "mild" it might be) only wants to stop it in the infant period, especially on babies in ICU and premies, and while they are still in diapers (given that the infection rate is high) and while they are too small for safe anesthetic and have less circulating blood, therefore higher chance of hemmorage.

    besides young boys have tight foreskin that is not met to retract and thus very clean and protected and easy to care for during the infant period.

    I do hope the bill gets passed. Anyway, I just thought I would share.

  • Janine @ Alternative Housewife says:

    I read this before and I realize I didn't comment, perhaps because I was frazzled with a newborn? Perfect post. I read a lot about pregnancy mainly because it was interesting and I wanted to know what was causing my symptoms, but I remarked to my mother that I didn't intend to read a single book on newborns/babies. I have since read tons of blogs but frankly, I do just do what feels right and once Baby was here, I felt totally relaxed and there was just never a need to study.

    I definitely agree with that need to shut off the computer when there is not only so much bad advice (much of it that could harm babies!), but SO MANY women actually following it to the letter.

  • Zoe says:

    This is a great post, thank you. I wish I had read it while I was pregnant. I read 2 baby books while I was pregnant and by trying to follow the advice all they have achieved is making me feel like a bad mum or that something is 'wrong' with my baby because she won't conform to the routines in the books. About a month ago I finally decided to hell with what the books say and to just try and 'read' what K wants from her behaviour and gestures, and we are both a lot happier for it.

  • Court says:

    I LOVE this post. So much of what I do is purely instinctual and so many people have tried to tell me I am wrong. Now that my children are getting older (almost 4 and 6 years old) all those naysayers (mostly family) are starting to see that maybe what I was doing does work in the long run even if it is a little more work in the beginning. The best compliment I have gotten so far is my youngest sister (she is 25) who actually told me when she goes to have kids she is coming to me for advice because I obviously know what I am doing more so then our other sisters.

    The advice I give every mom is do what feels right to YOU and your family and don't listen to everyone else.

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you, Court! What a wonderful compliment from your sister – it sounds like sticking with your instincts despite criticism was the right decision for you! :)

  • Aubrey says:

    Melissa, love this! Agreed 100%.

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