The Human Baby
"Tenderness appeared in man's mammalian ancestors eons before he learned to preserve fire or shape a stone."
- Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life
The human infant is a helpless creature at birth. He is virtually immobile, he cannot creep, walk, or speak, and is greatly limited in his ability to act with purpose. Unlike other primates, he cannot even hold on to or cling to his mother. He must be carried if he is to go from one place to another. Seventy-five per cent of his brain develops after birth. He cannot continue to live without the efforts of another human. He requires years of development before he can care for himself. A baby's helplessness and immature development requires a source of care. Nature has provided a source to match this need - the human mother.
Mothers are biologically and genetically designed to nurture their babies. A newborn's mother has everything a baby needs - arms to hold him, breasts with human milk to feed and comfort him, a human body to share with him, a person to protect and be there for him. She is someone who has evolved with the power and specific resources that will allow her baby to continue to live and to develop normally after he is born. Mother and infant did not evolve separately, but together. The mother is the other half of the human nurturing process, a process which begins at conception and which continues for many years after birth. Although a mother and her baby are from the moment of conception structurally separate, they evolved to function together as a unit. Donald Winnicott, the English psychologist, has said that, "There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone." This statement captures the reality of the human baby - a reality which is often overlooked in our society because babies are inaccurately perceived from the moment of birth as separate individuals.
It is not possible to fully understand the human baby or his development if we study him in separateness from the "someone" who keeps him alive. There has never been a baby who lived without the help and support of another human - with the possible exception of a few isolated and unproven reports of feral children raised by animals. And since those few individuals were abnormal in their development when they were found, it seems safe to conclude that a baby who develops without the care of another human being will be abnormal. So, when we talk about babies, or about their needs, we must also talk about mothers - or the "someone" or "someones" who take her place. Babies' needs and who babies become, have to do, not only with their genes, but with their caretakers and the society in which they develop.
Babies enter the world with only one power - the power to elicit the emotion of tenderness and a caring response to them from other humans, especially and specifically from their mothers. Everything about an infant is designed to bring about such a response. She is small, soft, vulnerable, harmless and engaging. Her need for care and protection is obvious. Her cry evolved to make her mother (and other humans) anxious and concerned. It is a signal of distress to which emotionally appropriate human beings respond to with efforts to be of help. Mother and baby are at first strangers to each other, but the mother, by affirming her baby's life with herself, establishes a joined entity in which each becomes a part of the other. The mother becomes the "someone" who makes it possible for the baby to continue to live and develop after birth.
A baby will, shortly after birth, begin to smile, to make pleasant and sweet happy sounds, to recognize and to explore his mother, and then to laugh, reach out, touch and hug, all of which increases his mother's tender attachment to him. He indicates that he likes being with his mother, that he wants to be with her, that he is not a stranger, that he is a friendly, social being, that he has all the human emotions that she does. Mother and baby are structurally separate and without a placental attachment after birth, but they are not physically or emotionally separate. They evolved to be a nursing couple in close, physical contact day and night - a couple who are reactive to each other's moods and feelings. A mother smiles when her baby smiles, laughs when her baby laughs, is anxious when her baby is anxious, content when he is content, peaceful when he is peaceful, and sad when he is unhappy. A baby smiles when his mother smiles, laughs at her sounds of delight, becomes upset when his mother is upset, anxious, distant, angry, or not available when he wants to be with her.
The mother-infant relationship, because of its physical intimacy, minimal separateness, strong mutual dependency, and the necessity for unity in functioning, collaboration, empathy, and identification may well be the most social of all human relationships. No other relationship, including that of the adult couple, tests the power of the human capacity to imagine, wonder, and become "another", since it is at first nonverbal, and then minimally verbal for many years. A baby cannot tell you with language who he is, what he feels, or what he wants or needs. The mother must come in touch with the "forgotten language", those non-verbal ways of communicating with another of our kind, that once was for humans (before we developed language) the only way to express our caring feelings to another.
For a baby, innately social, the relationship with his mother is his introduction to humanity, his first human relationship, and the one that sets the tone for all of his future relationships. For the mother, it is an opportunity to nurture and cherish the life of another, to directly share and participate in the development and creation of a human being, and by so doing, grow in her human connection.
A baby isn't at first aware that he can have an effect on his mother, that he has the power to make her feel tenderness toward him. Neither can he do anything special to make her take care of him. He is, without knowing it, relying on millions of years of mammalian evolution, on the fact that he is a baby and that she is a mother, in order to receive the tenderness and nurturing that his mother evolved to provide to her children.
We are a species whose existence is genetically rooted in our ability to feel tenderness toward the life we create and the capacity to nurture this life, both before and after birth. Prior to birth, the nurturing process follows its own natural genetic and biological course, and, in its tenacity, can only be terminated by miscarriage or abortion. The mother's body spontaneously accommodates as well as conditions permit to the growing embryo and fetus. Even unwanted conceptions that are carried to full term can deliver healthy infants. For many individuals, the process prior to birth, because it is independent of culture, may be the only time in their lives when they are nurtured in a normal human way.
As with all mammals, human gestation does not end with birth. The nurturing process after birth, although it is genetically and biologically continuous with the process before birth, is unfortunately not automatic. In humans, the mother can choose, and be influenced by others within her culture, to discontinue being a part of this process. It is likely that in our human beginnings mothers were governed much more by hormonal, instinctive, and reflexive processes in their response to their newborns than they later came to be. But as we developed our modern brain, the care of infants and young children became a conscious activity, and as consciousness became more and more determined by culture, the care of infants and children became a cultural process, greatly influenced by the socioeconomic organization of a society.
Babies are no longer cared for in ways that fit them, but in ways that make them fit their society. We are a species that is genetically designed to nurture our offspring and also one which can, because of our capacity for consciousness and awareness, understand, value, and give priority to the newborn's need for nurturing. We can - as individuals and as a society - encourage mothers to nurture their babies. However, consciousness is a two-edged sword. From cultural conditioning, we can believe, for example, that biological mothering is unimportant, unnecessary, and an unfair and burdensome intrusion on women's lives, or that too much nurturing "spoils" babies and is harmful to their development, or even that some babies, depending on their gender, "imperfection" at birth, parentage, or "illegitimacy," should not live.
We can be certain that for the bulk of human existence, mothers, mothering, and a baby's need for a mother were highly valued and given great priority by the human group. If such had not been the case, we would not have survived as, or continued to be, a species that required mothering. Mother and baby could not have lived very long on their own, separate from the group. Neither could they have survived without the support of the group.
Ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived were hunter-gatherers (Nanda). Studies of hunter-gatherer societies readily confirm the respect given, and the support provided, by the group to a mother nurturing a baby. Since ancient times, however, continuing until the present, there has been a concerted effort in Western civilization to eliminate the necessity for the natural mother to nurture her newborn. Mothers in many cultures and at various times have been encouraged to suppress their tender feelings toward their babies, discouraged from nurturing them in the biological human way, and to give over their baby's care to others. The wet nurse and baby bottle attest to these historical facts. Both of these cultural methods of providing infants with sustenance have - to our misfortune - succeeded in achieving their goal of eliminating the necessity for the natural mother to have to care for her baby. They have dramatically changed the biological conditions for human reproduction, the way new human life develops and, perhaps, the human species itself.
The history of childhood in the civilized world reveals that babies have not always been perceived as lovable or needing tenderness. At various times and for varied reasons, they have been seen as evil, harmful, burdensome, worthless, unwanted, and expendable. They have, of course, been treated in accordance with these beliefs about them (deMause, Beekman). Lloyd de Mause, in his book on the history of child care, has stated, "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused".
DeMause is referring to the societies of civilization, not to societies of people living outside civilization. The story of people who live as hunter-gatherers is quite different as regards children than the one described by him. Studies by anthropologists of hunter-gatherer groups do not describe infant and child care in these groups as a "nightmare." They usually describe the care of the young as "indulgent". One does find, however, that as these groups are exposed to "civilized ways", the care of babies and young children becomes less nurturing and more harsh, cruel, and punitive.
Humans evolved in the natural world and evolved to adapt to that world. Crucial to our success as a species when we lived in that world was our capacity to collaborate as a unified group. The human individual, as compared to other animals, is poorly endowed to survive in nature. We have no claws or fangs that can serve as weapons, we are slow-moving, and we have no protective armor. Even our superior brain, coupled with the manual dexterity that allows us to create what we can imagine, would have little survival value if we were not able to act collectively. Indeed, the human brain, with its capacity for language, empathy, and the ability to imagine and to play at being another, evolved as it did to enhance our capacity for collaborative and collective behavior. Those traits that allow us to survive in the modern world, such as self-sufficiency, independence, competitiveness, selfishness, and indifference to the plight or misfortune of others would have had little adaptive value when we lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers. Our adaptive strength then was in our ability for combined and unified functioning, not in our individual and separate skills, powers, possessions, or wealth.
The nurturing mother-infant interaction, rooted in the mother's capacity to care about the life she creates, was for most of our existence the model for all human relationships and the foundation for human society. It allowed the newborn to be born in an immature state and to slowly develop his brain and mind in relation to loving others. The nurturing process, predicated on the unity of mother and baby, developed individuals who would find it natural to function in unison with others. We would be a very different kind of species - a very unsocial one - if we were born fully developed and did not require mothering.
A human baby born today, to any parents anywhere in the world, would have no trouble fitting into a hunter-gatherer society. He evolved to do so. On the other hand, any baby born today in modern society does not fit our world, nor would any baby born in the past fit it either. Babies (and mothers) have not changed in their reproductive biological or genetic structure; it is society and mothers who have changed in their response to, and in their attitude toward, babies. We no longer value and support mothering or the babies' critical need to develop in relation to a tender, nurturing mother. We have deviated from the nurturing aspect of reproductive biology by changing the baby's "someone".
In a society where a baby lives and develops without his mother's presence and without human tenderness, some babies, if not most, become a different kind of human than they were meant to be. They must adapt to and fit the substitutes that have replaced natural mothering: formula, pacifiers, cribs, playpens, security objects, and substitute caregivers. In doing so, they are, as adults, different from adults who develop in relation to a nurturing mother. Inappropriately and poorly nurtured children grow up without the internalization of tenderness. We evolved to pass on to the newborn our tender feelings for them.
Babies need tenderness. They do not grow well
without it. It is the stuff that makes us human.
More Articles by James Kimmel
Beekman, Daniel. The Mechanical Baby. Westport, CT: Laurence Hill, 1977.
deMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood. New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974.
Mumford, Lewis. The Conduct of Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
Nanda, Serena. Cultural Anthropology, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadswoth Publishing, 1987.
Winnicott, D. The Family and Individual Development. New York: Basic Books, 1966.