Baby in the Senate! Is That Good?

U.S. Senate rules were changed so that Baby Maile can enter the chamber.

Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois took her 10-day-old baby, Maile, into the Senate chamber on April 19, 2018, a first for the U.S. Congress. For those who prefer male control of powerful institutions, it is a step in the wrong direction. For those who advocate for mother’s rights, it represents progress. But the most benefits actually go to babies.

Honoring the needs of babies so that they grow normally and optimally used to be a priority for society. In most societies for most of human existence, baby care was a priority. And that meant keeping babies in adult company all the time — in arms, breastfed on request, responsive to baby needs to keep baby calm.

For those who think that baby is a lump of clay to be molded by parental authority, keeping babies in the middle of adult life sounds ruinous. The opposite is true. Babies left alone, away from known caregivers, show distress biochemically (high cortisol), grow more slowly, and miss epigenetic shaping of physiological systems scheduled to grow at particular times.

Babies are born highly immature, looking like fetuses until 18 months of age. So there is much to grow. They organize their growth around how they are treated. Social capacities are scheduled to grow after birth. Leaving babies alone or in distress not only enhances the stress response (which can be set for life; Lupien et al, 2009), but doesn’t grow their sociality. Sensitive periods pass, leaving gaps in foundational systems. The brain is scheduled to prune what has not been used.

Lest the reader think Senator Duckworth’s move is unusual, politicians in other countries around the world have already broken the barrier of bringing babies to government chambers.

In fact, bringing babies to work is a growing trend. There are businesses set up to facilitate business policies and practices to make babies at work minimally disruptive.

Bringing babies into the center of adult life requires baby-care know-how—like what helps them stay calm.

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