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The Importance of the In-Arms Phase
by Jean Liedloff
Took from Mothering magazine, Winter 1989
In the two and a half years during which I lived among Stone Age Indians in the South American jungle (not all at once, but on five separate expeditions with a lot of time between them for reflection), I came to see that our human nature is not what we have been brought up to believe it is. Babies of the Yequana tribe, far from needing peace and quiet to go to sleep, snoozed blissfully whenever they were tired, while the men, women, or children carrying them danced, ran, walked, shouted, or paddled canoes. Toddlers played together without fighting or arguing, and they obeyed their elders instantly and willingly.
The notion of punishing a child had apparently never occurred to these people, nor did their behavior show anything that could truly be called permissiveness. No child would have dreamed of inconveniencing, interrupting, or being waited on by an adult. And by the age of four, children were contributing more to the work force in their family than they were costing others.
Babes in arms almost never cried and, fascinatingly, did not wave their arms, kick, arch their backs, or flex their hands and feet. They sat quietly in their slings or slept on someone’s hip — exploding the myth that babies need to flex to “exercise.” They also did not throw up unless extremely ill and did not suffer from colic. When startled during the first months of crawling and walking, they did not expect anyone to go to them but rather went on their own to their mother or other caretakers for the measure of reassurance needed before resuming their explorations. Without supervision, even the smallest tots rarely hurt themselves.
Is their “human nature” different from ours? Some people actually imagine that it is, but there is, of course, only one human species. What can we learn from the Yequana tribe?
Our Innate Expectations
Primarily, we can try to grasp fully the formative power of what I call the in-arms phase. It begins at birth and ends with the commencement of creeping, when the infant can depart and return at will to the caretaker’s knee. It consists, simply, of the infant having 24-hour contact with an adult or older child.
At first, I merely observed that this in-arms experience had an impressively salutary effect on the babies and that they were no “trouble” to manage. Their bodies were soft and conformed to any position convenient to their bearers — some of whom even dangled their babies down their backs while holding them by the wrist. I do not mean to recommend this position, but the fact that it is possible demonstrates the scope of what constitutes comfort for a baby. In contrast to this is the desperate discomfort of infants laid carefully in a crib or carriage, tenderly tucked in, and left to go rigid with the desire for the living body that is by nature their rightful place — a body belonging to someone who will “believe” their cries and relieve their craving with welcoming arms.
Why the incompetence in our society? From childhood on, we are taught not to believe in our instinctive knowledge. We are told that parents and teachers know best and that when our feelings do not concur with their ideas, we must be wrong. Conditioned to mistrust or utterly disbelieve our feelings, we are easily convinced not to believe the baby whose cries say “You should hold me!” “I should be next to your body!” “Don’t leave me!” Instead, we overrule our natural response and follow the going fashion dictated by babycare “experts.” The loss of faith in our innate expertise leaves us turning from one book to another as each successive fad fails.
It is important to understand who the real experts are. The second greatest babycare expert is within us, just as surely as it resides in every surviving species that, by definition, must know how to care for its young. The greatest expert of all is, of course, the baby — programmed by millions of years of evolution to signal his or her own kind by sound and action when care is incorrect. Evolution is a refining process that has honed our innate behavior with magnificent precision. The signal from the baby, the understanding of the signal by his or her people, the impulse to obey it — all are part of our species’ character.
The presumptuous intellect has shown itself to be ill-equipped to guess at the authentic requirements of human babies. The question is often: Should I pick up the baby when he or she cries? Or should I first let the baby cry for a while? Or should I let the baby cry so that this child know who is boss and will not become a “tyrant”?
No baby would agree to any of these impositions. Unanimously, they let us know by the clearest signals that they should not be put down at all. As this option has not been widely advocated in contemporary Western civilization, the relationship between parent and child has remained steadfastly adversarial. The game has been about how to get the baby to sleep in the crib, whether or not to oppose the baby’s cries has not been considered. Although Tine Thevenin’s book, The Family Bed, and others have gone some way to open the subject up of having children sleep with parents, the important principle has not been clearly addressed: to act against our nature as a species is inevitably to lose well-being.
Once we have grasped and accepted the principle of respecting our innate expectations, we will be able to discover precisely what those expectations are — in other words, what evolution has accustomed us to experience.
The Formative Role of the In-Arms Phase
How did I come to see the in-arms phase as crucial to a person’s development? First, I saw the relaxed and happy people in the forests of South America lugging around their babies and never putting them down. Little by little, I was able to see a connection between that simple fact and the quality of their lives. Later still, I have come to certain conclusions about how and why being in constant contact with the active caretaker is essential to the initial postnatal stage of development.
For one thing, it appears that the person carrying the baby (usually the mother in the first months, then often a four- to 12-year-old child who brings the baby back to the mother for feeding) is laying the foundation for later experience. The baby passively participates in the bearers running, walking, laughing, talking, working, and playing. The particular activities, the pace, the inflections of the language, the variety of sights, night and day, the range of temperatures, wetness and dryness, and the sounds of community life form a basis for the active participation that will begin at six or eight months of age with creeping, crawling, and then walking. A baby who has spent this time lying in a quiet crib or looking at the inside of a carriage, or at the sky, will have missed most of this essential experience.
Because of the child’s need to participate, it is also important that caretakers not just sit and gaze at the baby or continually ask what the baby wants, but lead active lives themselves. Occasionally one cannot resist giving a baby a flurry of kisses; however, a baby who is programmed to watch you living your busy life is confused and frustrated when you spend your time watching him living his. A baby who is in the business of absorbing what life is like as lived by you is thrown into confusion if you ask him to direct it.
The second essential function of the in-arms experience appears to have escaped the notice of everyone (including me, until the mid-1960s). It is to provide babies with a means of discharging their excess energy until they are able to do so themselves. In the months before being able to get around under their own power, babies accumulate energy from the absorption of food and sunshine. A baby therefore needs constant contact with the energy field of an active person, who can discharge the unused excess for each of them. This explains why the Yequana babies were so strangely relaxed — why they did not stiffen, kick, arch, or flex to relieve themselves of an uncomfortable accumulation of energy.
To provide the optimum in-arms experience, we have to discharge our own energy efficiently. One can very quickly calm a fussing baby by running or jumping with the child, or by dancing or doing whatever eliminates one’s own energy excess. A mother or father who must suddenly go out to get something need not say, “Here, you hold the baby. I’m going to run down to the shop.” The one doing the running can take the baby along for the ride. The more action, the better!
Babies — and adults — experience tension when the circulation of energy in their muscles is impeded. A baby seething with undischarged energy is asking for action: a leaping gallop around the living room or a swing from the child’s hands or feet. The baby’s energy field will immediately take advantage of an adult’s discharging one. Babies are not the fragile things we have been handling with kid gloves. In fact, a baby treated as fragile at this formative stage can be persuaded that he or she is fragile.
As parents, you can readily attain the mastery that comes with comprehension of energy flow. In the process you will discover many ways to help your baby retain the soft muscle tone of ancestral well-being and give your baby some of the calm and comfort an infant needs to feel at home in the world.
GREAT THINGS ABOUT BABYWEARING
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What are some of the really hard things about parenting?
- Your baby seems to need you all the time
It can be tricky to get much else done, other than care for your baby
- You want your baby to be as happy and content as she can be.
- Sometimes this seems really hard – tiring and frustrating
- It can be difficult to have much of a life, while so much of your time is taken up with your baby
Babywearing’s great for you:
- Cook dinner during the “arsenic hour” and soothe your baby at the same time
Do the gardening, chores, socialise, even dance, while providing a stimulating learning environment for your baby
- Breastfeed hands-free while on the phone or shopping
- Keep your baby close and happy while playing with your toddler
- Get some exercise (walking) while your baby sleeps
- No need to lug around an awkward, heavy carseat, or battle getting a stroller into your car, onto a bus or up stairs.
It’s also great for your baby:
- Babies cry less. Research has shown that babies who are carried cry (on average) 43% less overall and 54% less during the evening hours. In cultures where babies are carried almost continuously, babies cry much less than those in non-carrying cultures.
- Good for baby’s mental development. Babies spend more time in a “quiet, alert state” when carried – the ideal state for learning. Their senses are stimulated while being carried (yet there is a place to retreat too). When carried, your baby sees the world from where you do, instead of the ceiling above his crib or people’s knees from a stroller. And the extra stimulation benefits brain development.
- Good for baby’s emotional development. Babies are quickly able to develop a sense of security and trust when they are carried. They are more likely to be securely attached to their care-giver/s and often become independent at an earlier age.
- Good for baby’s physical development. By being so close to your body’s rhythms, your newborn “gets in rhythm” much more quickly. Your heartbeat, breathing, voice and warmth are all familiar. Research has shown how this helps newborns (especially premature babies) to adapt to life outside the womb.
- Good for babies whose mums are depressed. Babies who are not held need more verbal interaction and eye contact, just to be reassured that you’re there. Carrying your baby is a great way to connect with her (and provide stimulation too) without the “burden” of having to interact. Of course your baby is “right there” to enjoy whenever you feel like snuggling, kissing or talking.
It’s great for other people who look after your baby:
Partners who work away from home, relatives and babysitters all have a ready way of connecting with and soothing your baby when they wear him too!
Many people are discovering how well babywearing works in their lives. Try it for yourself and see!
BIRTH WITHOUT VIOLENCE
What is the most important event that happened in your life? Birth! Coming into this world was quite an event. Although you don’t remember it anymore, the circumstances in which you were born could have caused traumas that you are still carrying around, unconsciously. People who have been regressed through hypnosis to the moment of birth have remembered unpleasant experiences that caused psychological problems later on in their lives. Frederic Leboyer (see below) demonstrates this with a letter a woman sent him when she learnt about his teachings:“Allow me to share the following story with you. I can attest to its authenticity, for it is about me.
I was born in 1915, on June 22. One month later I became a ward of the state. I will pass over my childhood and adolescence, which were exceptionally happy. Nonetheless, I often had bad dreams at night, and one in particular, which was particularly vivid, woke me up every time. The admirable foster-mother who raised me would then take me into her bed and comfort me. This ghostly vision was always the same: a middle-aged woman, wearing an old-fashioned bonnet, would reach for my throat with such obvious intentions that I would scream … and wake up. This nightmare is still very vivid in my memory for the following reason: it haunted my nights, about a dozen times a year, until I was about forty (my husband was the one who would comfort me then).
Well, when I was thirty-nine, without having looked for her, I found my mother again. She explained the reason why she had abandoned me. She was unmarried, and as soon as she confessed her “sin” to her mother, the latter flew into a horrible rage. At the moment of my birth, in a little village near here, she threw her daughter down off the bed and leaped onto me, trying to strangle me. Some good neighbors, who were present, called the nuns from the little hospital nearby, and they took us both away. Faced with repeated threats from that irascible grandmother, my mother took me herself to the Public Assistance office in Privas as soon as she was strong enough to make the trip, which was a long one in those days. When I asked her what that woman looked like, I had the (totally unexpected) surprise of recognizing, in her description, the woman who had caused me so many nightmares.
I, of course, have told this story to all of my children, waiting for the time when I could speak of it to a specialist. Now it has come! I hope that this will corroborate your thesis on the ability of the baby to feel: the already conscious state, of a new-born baby. If it is possible for you, I would like you to give me your feelings about my story, which is totally truthful.”
The circumstances of birth were primarily determined by midwives. In Greek and Roman times, midwives functioned as respected, autonomous care providers to women during their reproductive cycles. Some qualifications for the practice of midwifery began to evolve during this period. For example, in Greece the midwife was a woman who had borne children herself. This requirement has remained a commonality in the practice of midwifery.
The midwives of these centuries generally continued to learn by the apprentice model. As an apprentice, skills and knowledge were passed down from generation to generation .
As modern medicine gained legitimacy and power toward the end of the nineteenth century, it called for the abolition of midwifery and home birth in favor of obstetrics in a hospital setting. In 1900, midwives still were attending almost half of all births but was steadily declining. Midwives were portrayed as dirty, illiterate, and ignorant, and eventually women were convinced that they were safer in the hands of doctors and hospitals. Midwives were effectively stamped out in the early years of the 20th century. Physicians trained in the specialty of obstetrics and gynecology declared themselves to be the proper caregivers for childbearing women, and the hospital was deemed to be the proper setting for that care. Birth evolved from a physiological event into a medical procedure.
By the 1960s women were forced to endure labor without the presence or support from partners or family. Infants were taken from the mother at delivery and cared for in newborn nurseries and bottle-feeding became the norm. Any babies born outside the sterile environment of the operating room were labeled contaminated and kept separately.
Although modern medicine has given us many advantages in health care, the circumstances of birth have completely changed. Fortunately we have seen many changes in the last decades in hospitals, maternity wards, and a growing interest in natural births, or home births, coupled with the advantages and knowledge of modern medicine.
Why is the environment at birth so important? As the newborn baby arrives into a new world sounds are loud and harsh, light is blinding, and big hands are touching him all over. The baby is very susceptible to what happens to him, and around him. When doctors took over midwifery, this fact was totally ignored. Babies were seen as just a part of a medical procedure. A person who shed new light on the importance of childbirth was Frederick Leboyer.
When I first read Birth without Violence it opened my eyes. Birth without Violence explores in depth the sensitivity of the newborn and the importance of how the baby is handled by the people around him. I first read the book after I had seen a TV program about ‘natural births’, in which Leboyer was teaching pregnant women how they could communicate with their yet unborn babies. He taught that the baby in the womb is able to intuitively understand what the mother is saying, not the actual words, of course, but what she wants. He would teach them to put their hands on their belly and tell the baby to move upwards or downwards in the belly, and yes, after five or ten seconds touch could clearly see that the baby did move into the desired direction. It worked every time. Leboyer’s focus was primarily on improving the quality of the birth experience for the baby. His message was that a sensitive, unobtrusive style of care which is deeply respectful of the natural process, and a peaceful atmosphere at the time of birth would help the baby to be born with a minimum of trauma. His famous book and film ‘Birth Without Violence’ inspired mothers all over the world to want to give birth naturally and in a more quiet atmosphere. Birth Without Violence illustrates how to create an environment of tranquility in which to welcome our children: a relaxed mother, gentle lighting, soothing atmosphere, and a warm bath that mirrors the child’s prenatal surroundings. Dr. Leboyer’s simple techniques demonstrate how a birth without violence has far-reaching implications for improving the quality of human life physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
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