We need the science bit.
Mammals comfortably split into 4 groups in terms of their parenting styles. These parenting styles are directly reflected in the constitution of their milk – fat and protein and carbohydrate levels vary dramatically among mammals. Guinea pig: fat levels can be 46%. Human milk: pretty stable at less than 5%.
We’ve got the cache mammals who hide their young away somewhere hopefully inaccessible from hungry coyotes and potter off and look for food and presumably do other useful things for up to 12 hours. These mammals need to have milk rich in fat and protein and these youngsters are left to fend for themselves. And at birth, the newborn mammal is relatively mature. Think rabbit. You don’t see rabbits hitching a ride on mum’s back. But – hang on - what’s a rabbit going off and doing for up to 12 hours at a time? Let’s not dwell on that bit. They’re cache mammals.
I think you can imagine where I’m going with this.
Nest animals will feed about every 4 hours (Wolves, dogs, cats). The more immature young will huddle in their group and need to feed more frequently than a cache mammal.
Follow animals feed about every 2 hours. Cows and Giraffes are again reasonably mature at birth. They are capable of keeping up.
And carry animals feed virtually continually. Feeds will often be clustered and intervals might be quite short. Fat content of milk is extremely low (Apes, marsupials, us).
In terms of maturity, these carry newborns are as about as dependent as it gets. Without close bodily contact with parents, respiration rate and oxygenation rate, heart rate, growth, stress hormone levels – this stuff doesn’t start to look good.
When it comes to the maturity thing, we are spectacularly rubbish. And you can blame a battle we’ve been fighting for hundreds of thousands of years: Human pelvis shape Vs. Human brain size. Our brain is enormous and our skull reflects that. But – oooops – we seem to like walking upright and that produces a problem. We need a neat upturned pelvis that holds our weight and gives us nice straight legs. Any more extreme than what we currently have would not be ideal for the easiest birth experience. So nature holds back a bit and we might give birth to a relatively huge-brained baby but brain development is still nothing compared to what it will be. The brain is still barely only a quarter of its adult size. By aged 2, it’s about 80% of its adult size. We do a heck of a lot of our development outside the womb.
Just as little squirmy pink kangaroos are born and wriggle into their mother’s pouch and stay put for as long as they can get away with, so our newborns need us profoundly.
No, this doesn’t mean they need a nutrition fix and then get wrapped up and put back in their moses basket across the room again for several hours. You’ll have caught the bit where we’re not wolves or wild cats.
And nor should we be pulling our hair out if they’re not sleeping through the night for a 12 hour stint at 2 months. Not rabbits either.
You can read more about this if you look into the work of Dr Nils Bergman who has been pioneering Kangaroo Mother Care in South Africa. In his eyes, close contact with baby and frequently offering the breast isn’t about the care of premature or unwell babies. It isn’t some freaky hippy option preferred by the muesli-knitters. It’s just science and it’s who we are as a species. If it makes you sad, by all means try something new and try and find something that works for your family. A lactation consultant can help you try and tweak your baby’s routine. And yes, constant feeding and unsettled behaviour might suggest a problem that needs addressing.
But know that frequent feeding and a baby ‘that just won’t go down’ is the norm. The baby that feeds and settles and but wakes and becomes unhappy when placed on a cold unhuman surface is the norm. Put clocks away and tap into those millions of years of evolution. Trust that we’ve got to where we are as a species because baby’s exhibit useful cues and we respond. Babies grow with milk and love. And it works.
This message is at the heart of a lot of what we need to talk about when it comes to parenting.
We need to know how things went pear-shaped in the mid to late 20th century and why our breastfeeding rates reached an ALL-TIME low as a species when we tried to impose artificially- constructed ideas onto our biological norm.
We need to know how many of the most popular babycare books on the market today are STILL informed by these 20th century ideas – that were just a blip on the landscape of human society historically and globally.
And there are parents out there right now who think a baby that longs to be in their arms is some kind of personal failing. Phrases like ‘spoiling a baby’, ‘rods for our back’, ‘show them who’s boss’ come from this unnatural blip. Our parents and grandparents embraced the mid-20th century blip and sometimes need desperately to see a validation of their own parenting choices in the decisions that we make. It doesn't make for easy family relationships when we say, "actually we don't feel wearing my baby in a sling or feeding more than 4 hourly is 'spoiling my baby', thanks gran."
New mums who worry that their baby still feeds 2 hourly most of the time at 3 months and that this means something is ‘wrong’ need to know the science of breastmilk and breasts. There are babycare books with sales booming who fundamentally misunderstand how breastmilk storage capacity might impact a mother’s intervals between feeds and have ignored research from the last 2 decades. There are mothers out there who genuinely think they should be aiming for 4 hourly intervals.
More on how biology informs our natural feeding intervals and this new research in the next post.
To be continued.