In Celebration Of Mothering

The Human Nest And Mothering – Why Children Need Them

Although children are a communal affair, the mother is the initial conveyer of attention and support from the community (Hrdy, 2009). A supported mother (from her childhood on) will convey love, kindness and compassion, giving these unilaterally to the child until the child is able to reciprocate (Vaughan, 2015).

In fact, we know now more than ever that the child’s body and brain are “the result of mothering and being mothered” (Vaughan, 2015, p. 38). Mothering is essential for babies.

Who is a motherer?

Motherers can be male or female. They instinctively want babies to have the best possible start in life.

Motherers are attuned to the rhythms of the infant who moves “with rhythms of prospective awareness from birth, show[s] insight for learning what the world affords, and share[s] their feelings of imaginative vitality in affectionate adventures with other persons.” (Trevarthen and Bjorkvold, forthcoming, p. 28)

“By 3 months, a baby may participate in simple conventions of a culture, inviting older playmates to play games with routines and rituals, join­ing in narratives of purpose with feeling” (Dissanayake, 2008; Trevarthen, 1999, 2001, 2008, 2016; Trevarthen & Delafield- Butt, 2015). (Trevarthen and Bjorkvold, forthcoming, p. 29)

How do motherers show love in early life?

Through providing the human nest. The nest provides what the baby’s body and brain expects to grow well

The human nest is all about mothering. The intensity of the human nest evolved with the maturational schedule of the child. Human biology and sociality are designed to be largely shaped after birth–unlike for any other animal. So much happens after birth that children’s capacities for wellbeing are shaped by the particular culture in which they are born.

Yet, it turns out that the early human nest looks by and large the same for young children all over the world, at least in the type of society in which humanity spent 99% of its history (nomadic foragers). Further, most characteristics are over 30 million years old, indicating how important they are for proper development. And now, neuroscience shows how important each characteristic is for well-developed  intelligencehealth and wellbeing (Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013).

What does the human nest look like?

Here is the set of characteristics identified by anthropologists (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2005), with links to blogs providing more information:

1. Soothing birth experience (no separation of mother and baby, no induced pain)

Series on birth: Labor drugs; Midwives and Doulas

Circumcision’s Psychological Damage

2. Breastfeeding on request for 2-5 years (average age of weaning is 4 years) (Yes, this is a bit of a shocker, but what the human body/brain expect)

Darcia Narvaez Book
Winner of the 2015 William James Award from the American Psychological Association

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

3. Affection and constant touch or physical presence (according to child’s needs)

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Why You Should Cuddle Your Kids: Adult Health and Morality

4. Responsiveness to needs to keep baby from becoming distressed

Dangers of “Crying It Out”

5. Multiple adult caregivers

Successful Motherhood Is a Collaboration

6. Positive social support for mother and baby

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

7. Self-directed play throughout childhood in nature with multi-age playmates

Happiness and Growth through Play (series)

These characteristics are shown to have lasting effects. For example, our recent study shows that they affect adult mental health and morality.

Mothering reflects openhearted acceptance throughout life. Here is a recent example, Gabe Lopez and his mother.

Where does mothering come from?

The natural world, of course. The natural world runs on a “gift economy,” where entities take what they need and give back in ways that meet the needs of others.

Mothering is about unilateral gift giving (initially) and then shared gift giving. In mutually-related cultures, there is no sense of ownership over any planetary entity (e.g., rivers, land, animals, plants) but instead a cycling relationship of giving and taking and giving with All.

This gift economy is built into child raising: The child is a “product of gift-work” (Vaughan, 2015, p. 39).

Motherers incorporate the gift-giving relational experiences they had in early life. That is, they were nurtured themselves by motherers and it became a part of how they relate to others. They learned to cooperate first by receiving from motherers what they needed as embodied creature, body to body. Gradually reciprocating with mini-gift giving back to the motherer with the same type of attention received (shared resonance of feeling, games, and communication).

Why has mothering declined?

If a mother lacked support herself in childhood and in motherhood, she is less likely to convey these supportive types of attention and feeling. Instead, she is more likely to communicate impatience, dismissal, and detachment. The child will not grow as well or blossom if this is the homelife he faces. Hopefully, there is at least one person in his life that “mothers” him, showering  love and acceptance— in whose presence he can grow his unique spirit.

But the lack of mothering is a culture-wide issue. With human supremacy culturesthe notion of property came into being. Non-mothering, which is dominant among males and elites, is about grasping or hoarding, a breakdown in the endless cycle of gift economy that runs the natural world under conditions prior to the human supremacy cultures. Domination instead of partnership toward other humans, towards animals and plants and then the land has spread over generations to today when people think it is permissible (or preferable) to advance private ownership of water sources, land bases and even air (movie, The Corporation).

“It is crucial to understand the reasons why an integrated gift approach has not been widespread before now in the West; these have to do with the hegemony of patriarchy and the market…the market…replays the logic of gift-giving in reverse. The superstructure and view of the world coming from the market hide gift-giving / mothering, contradict it and, meshed with patriarchy, further plunder it. …the market and money function as conceptual mechanisms that distort and denature gift-giving…For our patriarchal capitalist society, Nature and mothers both give without exchange so they are indeed ‘closer’ to each other, more similar than they are to those men who force gifts (making others give in or give up!) and impose market exchange. Nature is exploited and devastated, just as mothering and gift-giving are exploited and devastated because both are aspects of a gift economy located within a context of exchange and patriarchal domination.” (Vaughn, 2015, p. 43)

In my view, mothering is about engaging and growing the heartsense, the deeper sense of connection with others and with the larger All. When child receive human- nest care, these things develop naturally because their capacities (governed by the right hemisphere) are scheduled to lay their foundations in the first years of life.

When families and communities do not provide the human nest, risk is introduced  to that baby: at risk are physical and mental health, social and moral capacities, all the capacities necessary for a good life. The risk factors build up over time because a poor foundation of a thousand factors has been laid upon which subsequent capacities are based. The result is a “jalopy” of a person, a person who is handicapped from the beginning, because parents ‘didn’t have time’ or gave into pressure to ignore baby’s needs.

The next post will be about how males in particular are affected by mothering (or its lack). We have a world history governed by many damaged males (focused on the primitive morality of power), leading us to the severe crises humanity faces.

Photo Shutterstock/Melpomene


Dissanayake, E. (2008). If music is the food of love, what about survival and reproductive success? Musicae Scientiae, Special issue 2008, 169– 195.

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Konner, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood: The !Kung and others. In B. Hewlett & M. Lamb (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 19-64). New Brunswich, NJ: Transaction.

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013a). Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Trevarthen, C. (1999). Musicality and the intrinsic motive pulse: Evidence from human psychobiology and infant communication. In Rhythms, musical narrative, and the ori­gins of human communication. Musicae Scientiae, Special Issue, 1999– 2000, 157– 213. Liège: European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.

Trevarthen, C. (2001) Intrinsic motives for companionship in understanding: Their origin, development and significance for infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1– 2), 95– 131.

Trevarthen, C. (2008). The value of creative art in childhood. Children in Europe, 14, 6– 9.

Trevarthen, C. (2016). From the intrinsic motive pulse of infant actions, to the life time of cultural meanings. In B. Mölder, V. Arstila, & P. Øhrstrøm (Eds.), Philosophy and Psychology of Time. Springer Studies in Brain and Mind, Vol. 9, pp. 225– 265. Dordrecht: Springer International.

Trevarthen, C., & Bjørkvold, J-R. (in press). Life for learning: How a young child seeks joy with companions in a meaningful world. In D. Narvaez, J. Braungart-Rieker, L. Miller, L. Gettler, & P. Hastings (Eds.), Contexts for Young Child Flourishing: Evolution, Family and Society (pp. 28-60). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Trevarthen, C., & Delafield- Butt, J. T. (2015). The infant’s creative vitality, in projects of self- discovery and shared meaning: How they anticipate school, and make it fruitful. In S. Robson & S. F. Quinn (Eds.), International handbook of young children’s thinking and understanding (pp. 3– 18). Abingdon; Oxfordshire; New York: Routledge.

Vaughan, E. (2015). The gift in the heart of language: The maternal source of meaning. Mimesis International.

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