Every mother intuitively knows the supreme importance of the relationship between her and her child with every fibre of her being, for Nature has designed it to be this way. There is nothing obscure or esoteric about the bond of intuitive connectedness that exists between mother and child – it is something so inherent to our biological system that it is as natural to us as breathing, and in many ways it is just as essential to our survival.
And while it’s true that babies don’t come with instructions, what we do have is unlimited access to the wisdom of millions of years of nurturing encoded into our very experience of mothering, especially for the crucial early years of our babies’ lives. All it takes is for us to trust Nature’s plan, for there is an inherent feeling of rightness, which every mother knows, guiding and affirming this process of developing a new human life. When baby feels well, mother feels well, and she is deeply motivated to ensure this is so. We all have this knowing; it is part of our “hardware”, so to speak. This knowing is already informing our mothering all the time, and with a little attention, it can be an unquestionable ally.
Communication Between Mother and Child
On a very subtle and physiological level, this communication channel begins establishing itself from the day of conception and evolves throughout pregnancy. A mother vividly remembers the first real exchange with their baby when they are born, no matter what her birthing experience has been – it is a look of profound recognition, one that she carries with her for her entire life. This bonding at birth sets in motion an exquisitely intricate exchange of biological and hormonal messages that cause a mother to be attuned to her baby, who is in turn wired to behave with cues that a mother intuitively knows how to read and interpret. Like a transmitter-receiver network, mother and baby, through practice, fine-tune their communication until the reception is clear. Prolactin and oxytocin are powerful mothering hormones that help to form the chemical basis for what is called mother’s intuition. “It comes with the mothers’ milk”, as the saying goes. And it is really true, chemically and hormonally, it quite literally does!
Whether the initial bonding between mother and infant develops into what is known as a “secure attachment” is largely dependent on the mother (or other primary caregiver, if the biological mother is not raising the child) being consistently present and responsive to her baby’s needs. The “attachment” between mother and infant has been established and strengthened throughout human history by mothers holding their babyies close to their bodies during their early lives and sleeping alongside them at night; by responding to their needs whenever they cried, and providing nutrition and comfort through breastfeeding. A baby’s physical, intellectual, emotional and early social development is designed to take through this interactive process, and is vital to establishing the crucial neuropsychological foundations for trust, affection, and empathy – the very foundation of all that it means to be human.
The Importance of Attachment
It’s no wonder that the latest research in psychobiology and developmental neuroscience is confirming the immense importance of this attachment phase for a baby’s development, and the devastating consequences of interfering with Nature’s plan. If one takes the time to consider the vast wealth of studies available, one can easily draw the conclusion, as countless researchers, child psychologists and developmental specialists have, that many of the problems in our society are a direct reflection of the lack of true nurturance our infants receive today. Perhaps the first step to healing this self perpetuating cycle of separation and abandonment is to consider that just maybe there are good reasons why Nature intended mother and child to be so closely bonded for the initial dependent years of an infant’s life. And then, perhaps more urgently, to see for ourselves that the precious connection that exists between our children and us can show us how best to care for them.
Of course, every mother knows well this intuitive connection with their infants. Every mother I have spoken to agrees that its hallmark characteristics are a profound sense of love and tenderness, along with an inner conviction that can’t necessarily be explained. It feels like an effortless and intuitive recognition of just the right thing to do arising from a whole spectrum of possibilities; sometimes even we are surprised how our informed responses just seemed to magically click things into place. This “ah-ha!” happens every day in every busy mother’s life, and we hardly even notice it, because as soon as we respond in a way that fits, all is well again and life is just streaming on. We are especially grateful in the moments that it arises as an urgent alertness when our baby is skirting with a possible danger and we manage to “rescue” them just in time.
But how often do we override this inner knowing, only to regret it afterwards? Of course every mother also knows, only too well, how profoundly disturbing that feels. This deep-seated feeling of unease can also be our guide. It informs us well when we are willing to question what we are doing that is creating such a feeling. Its presence is a very clear signal to stop and listen for what would seem to be a more appropriate response. We simply have to trust the answer that comes, and see for ourselves how it “works” – in terms of the feeling of wellness that it creates not only in us, but also in our child. Their well being is the most accurate and specific barometer we have, for babies only know how to express the truth of their being.
By way of example, I am sure all of us can relate at some point to a conflict about responding to our baby’s crying at night. Every mother instinctively knows she must respond when her baby cries, even if she has been led by the experts or even well meaning people around her to believe she should encourage her baby to be self-reliant and to regulate their own sleep by leaving them alone to “cry it out”. Every mother knows that it is distressing for a baby to be left alone in need – it is just as distressing to her not to respond. She knows that crying is the only means her baby has to communicate its needs to her. Certainly she knows how desperately “wrong” it feels not to hold her baby in her arms and comfort them – it goes completely against her biological nature. (It goes against her baby’s, too – it has been proven that prolonged and frequent crying creates cascades of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones that not only damage brain cells and impair memory but also set in motion a long lasting disregulation of the brain’s biochemistry.)
She will struggle between her knowing and what she has been told or what she has read about introducing schedules and training her baby to sleep and how she will be “spoiling” her baby if she picks them up, all the while desperately trying to ignore what she feels because she believes she is “sacrificing” herself for her baby’s “good”. Sometimes she will secretly pick up her baby anyway, and discover that the baby settles and becomes calm, comforted by his mother’s warm body, feeling safe and cared for – as he biologically expects to be. And the mother can relax into that feeling of quiet calm herself, feeling the “rightness” of holding her baby in her arms, at least for this time. It feels good to her; it feels good to her baby. And it feels good for a very good reason – because that is how it is supposed to be! Even if we have learned over generations to override our own natural instincts and to value the opinions of so-called experts and authorities instead, even if we have learned to make the standard models of child-rearing our reference points for how to respond to our children, we still know, deep in our hearts, that our babies are depending on us to be there for them, as their source of nurturance and comfort.
Of course this level of sensitivity to a baby’s crying may seem perfectly obvious to some – but not so to others. It is a paradox and a sad irony that often it is our deep love for our children that can make us vulnerable and willing to betray our own inner knowing in favour of the cultural norms or the latest trends advocated by experts, who (we want to believe) must surely know it better. And we are willing to believe them probably for much the same reasons as our parents believed the popular models of their time; because of our love for our children, we so sincerely want to do it “right”.
Unfortunately, there simply isn’t one ultimately enduring right way. We have seen so many popular ideas come and go out of fashion; old myths are debunked and new ones are created all the time, in much the same way that medicines are approved and then revoked when unexpected side effects occur (or worse still, stay on the market!). “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was once a reference point every good parent staked their values on; today there is a wealth of evidence proving that spanking is one of the most counter-productive and damaging of all discipline methods (besides the fact that it was a misquoted statement in the first place!).
It is worthwhile to take a good inventory of our own child-raising values because quite likely there are all kinds of beliefs lurking around that don’t stand up to conscious appraisal. And because at some point we have accepted these ideas, they become our reference point for responding when the fitting situation presents itself. Especially when we find ourselves reacting in ways that create disharmony and suffering within us and our child, we can take it as an invitation to tune in and see if our inner knowing has a better suggestion on how to handle the situation.
Parents, the Real Experts
Sometimes our intuitive connection can be clouded by insecurity and self-doubt, which divides our wholeness of being and sends us looking everywhere else for the answers, separated from our own actual experience where the true answer lies. We can respond in the most natural and authentic way when we just take it moment to moment, bringing our awareness completely into the present, fully embodying our senses and being open and receptive to what our baby is telling us.
It is also worth bearing in mind that not only do we have countless generations of nurturing already encoded into our experience of mothering, but also that each child is a totally unique human being with unique characteristics and temperament; so are their parents, and so is the family environment each child is born into. For this very reason there is no expert in the world who knows more about a child when it comes to determining strategies of discipline, education and health than the mothers and fathers (and other consistently present caregivers) who have been deeply committed and lovingly attentive to that child from the moment they are born.
Not even doctors, claims Robert Mendelsohn, who is the author of How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor (and he should know; he was a practising pediatrician for over 30 years!). He reassures parents that they are the ones best suited to care for their children in almost all cases, rather than handing them over to the conveyer belt in their pediatrician’s office; to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge about the child’s medical history and behaviour that the parents have, doesn’t have the time to find out, and who is implicitly expected to intervene in the child’s healing process which almost always is unnecessary. (This is a very reassuring book in worrying moments!) “Know Your Child” is also the core axiom of effective discipline that is built on trust, according to Dr William Sears, who is a pediatrician, a father of eight children and a prolific author on attachment parenting, including “The Baby Book”. When we help our child to maintain a sense of well being by understanding and responding to their needs, they feel “right” – and a child that feels “right” is more likely to act right, and eventually operates from a set of inner controls rather than external force. He advocates that they are also more likely to be respectful of the boundaries that every parent will and must set for them to securely grow within when they have been treated respectfully themselves.
Trusting the Children
Perhaps we already trust our children to let us know when they are ready to start walking; but do we also trust that they will let us know when it’s time to start toilet training? Or to be weaned from breastfeeding? Or to sleep in their own beds? How about trusting them to let us know when it’s time to learn to read, or write, or any number of things that we currently believe need to be imposed on them “for their own good”? John Holt, who was a leading social and educational critic who spearheaded the 1960s education reform, advocates in several of his books that small children will indeed learn how to read, write, count and investigate the world all by themselves, without ever needing to be taught. His classic child development books, “How Children Learn” and “How Children Fail” are very inspiring and insightful examinations of the incredible aptitude children have for self-led learning when they are trusted to set their own curriculum.
I am not suggesting that we keep our kids away from schools or doctors or other external influences per se – but what I am suggesting is that we be willing to re-examine our basic assumptions of who knows best when it comes to raising our children, especially in the most crucial early years of life.
Neither do I mean to say that we should reject all advice; there is also much wisdom to be gained in listening to those who we trust within our community and who have a wealth of personal experience to draw from. It is also very much our Nature to collaborate as a unified group, especially in matters of child-raising. As our children grow and the choices we must make become more and more complex and often no longer within the scope of our own personal experience, it is profoundly supportive to share our resources and experiences with others who have similar interests.
We are in a most fortunate and unique time in human history when we have more creative choice than ever before about how we live and therefore, how we raise our children. We have an incredible wealth of information and possibility available to us regarding means of education, discipline, health care and development. There is perhaps much to be said for keeping it simple and prioritising what is of overall importance in our lives. If we wish to nurture the most secure attachment possible with our babies and to fulfill the biological expectations they are born with as a solid foundation, a little voluntary simplicity in our lives will be an enormous investment in our child’s emotional well being for the entirety of theirs.
Life becomes much simpler when we know we can trust Nature’s plan to inform us on how to be with our children in a way that supports the totality of their being unfolding according to their own inherent design. We can trust our own experience and make informed decisions about our life choices that will shape their early development, apply our cognitive as well as our intuitive faculties in making the most informed, conscious choices we can. We must also be willing to trust ourselves with these choices and stand for them, even if our choices fly in the face of modern notions of child-raising. And we can look to our children, who behold the world with such innocent wonder as they discover who they are, and know that it is definitely worthwhile.
In soft whisperings from the heart,
The child within offers you always,
The thread of your truth.
May you cherish that child,
Trust that voice,
And weave that thread richly,
Into the fabric of your days.
The Natural Child Project: www.Naturalchild.org
Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 3, September 02