Why Babies Need to be Carried and Held

Parenting 7th Sep 2011

"I can't put my baby down! My baby always wants to be held. I can't get anything done."

How many new mothers find themselves expressing these feelings after having had their first baby?

When my first daughter was born, it seemed that everyone around me felt that I should be able to put her down "between feeds" (whenever that was!); everyone, that is, except my daughter. She objected wholeheartedly to any separation, and it was many weeks or months before I finally realized that she needed me and wanted to be with me always, and would tell me so in no uncertain terms.

Before my baby was born, I had sunny visions of all of the new hobbies I would embark upon during my maternity leave. I imagined watercolor classes, reading more books from the library, and going on long, leisurely walks. Where was my baby in these heady daydreams? To this day, I still do not know what I was thinking. Did I expect her to be looked after in a crèche somewhere? Did I think that she would lie quietly beside me, cooing over my beautiful use of cerulean blue for that mid-day sky in my painting?

Now, with chagrin, I share my early visions of motherhood with other "seasoned" mothers and I notice that I am not the only one who misunderstood how truly needy and absorbing my baby would be.

Unlike other animals, newborn humans are totally dependent on their mothers. In Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, Mohrbacher and Kendall-Tackett explain that human babies are born at less than 50% of adult brain growth, while most other mammals are born with about 80%. Most brain growth happens outside the womb, and "the ingredients unique to human milk play a key role in this." Why is this the case? The authors point out that "with our larger brains and smaller pelvises, our babies' heads are in danger of growing larger than the mothers' pelvic region can accommodate." The solution is for the baby to be born before she is fully mature, continuing gestation outside the womb.

Perhaps if we saw our newborn babies as being as vulnerable and dependent outside the womb as they are inside, it might not come as such a surprise that our babies need the same round-the-clock care that they had in utero. In the mother's womb, the baby never feels hunger, she is never lonely or cold; all sounds and sensations are experienced through the mother's body and are therefore cushioned and softened by the mother's presence. After the journey of birth, it seems natural that a baby would expect that same quality of care.

Another factor in a baby's expectation of 24-hour nurturing and care is the interplay between the baby's immaturity and the differences in her mother's milk. According to animal behavioralist, Nils Bergman, MD, there are four different kinds of mammals, depending on how they care for their young (see below). When I heard Nancy Mohrbacher speak about these ideas at a La Leche League of Southern California/Nevada Area Conference, she quipped that although humans are carry mammals, we seem to aspire to being nest mammals!

Cache, follow, nest, & carry mammals

  • Cache mammals. These include the deer and rabbit. Cache mammals are mature at birth. Their mothers hide their young in a safe place and return to them every 12 hours. Consistent with this behavior, the milk of cache animals is high in protein and fat. It sustains the young animals for a long time, because babies are fed infrequently.
  • Follow mammals. The giraffe and cow are follow mammals and like others of this group, are also mature at birth and can follow their mothers wherever they go. Since the baby can be near the mother throughout the day and feed often, the milk of the follow mammal is lower in protein and fat than that of a cache mammal.
  • Nest mammals. These include the dog and cat. Nest mammals are less mature than cache or follow mammals at birth. They need the nest for warmth and remain with the other young from the litter. The mother returns to feed her young several times a day. The milk of nest mammals has less protein and fat than cache mammals. But it has more than follow mammals who feed more frequently.
  • Carry mammals. This group include the apes and marsupials, such as the kangaroo. The carry mammals are the most immature at birth, need the warmth of the mother's body, and are carried constantly. Their milk has low levels of fat and protein, and they are fed often around the clock.

Humans are most definitely carry mammals. Human milk has the lowest fat and protein content of all mammalian milks. That and our immaturity at birth mean human infants need to feed often and are meant to be carried and held.

"Human milk has the lowest fat and protein content of all mammalian milks. That and our immaturity at birth mean human infants need to feed often and are meant to be carried and held.

How are today's mothers to respond to their babies in the way biology and our babies demand?

La Leche League believes "Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby." Breastfeeding our babies enables them to re-experience that womb-like closeness that characterizes their early experience. It is a one-stop, quick-fix for so many of your baby's needs: her need for closeness, food, drink, warmth, the sound of mother's heartbeat, the feel of her skin, and the reassurance that her primary source of attachment will not leave her.

"Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby

So why was it so hard for me (and many other mothers) to acknowledge, understand, and accept my baby's need to be with me? Why did it come as such a shock? Part of the answer might be found in our society's (mis)understanding of how breastfeeding and the mother-infant relationship works.

La Leche League's Breastfeeding Answer Book third edition (revised) page 36 discusses "cluster feeding," a familiar experience for many mothers of babies who want to breastfeed almost constantly in the evening hours:

"In areas where artificial feeding is the norm, many parents misinterpret their baby's desire to nurse more often than every two to three hours as a sign that the mother doesn't have enough milk, when cluster nursing is actually a common feeding pattern for most young breastfed babies."

Our culture has shifted to understand artificial feeding as the norm, when actually so many of the things our babies do are normal but we misinterpret them because the lenses through which we see our babies are smudged by unrealistic expectations.

Recently, I worked with a mother who was having difficulties latching her baby on to the breast in hospital after a long and medicated labor. I encouraged her to hold her baby in skin-to-skin contact as much as possible. But sadly, when she tried to do so, she was told by others not to do it as it might "become a comfort" to the baby who might come to expect it later. The fact is that babies expect it already!

To continue to tell ourselves and others that babies should be happy to be put down, that a "good" baby is a "contented" baby who demands little of her mother, and that babies who want to be close to their mothers are somehow difficult is to continue to propagate misinformation that does a disservice to today's mothers and babies, as well as mothers and babies of the future.

Lisa Hassan Scott is an LLL Leader living in South Wales with her husband Keith two daughters, and their son. She writes aparenting blog.

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