How the Chemnistry of Smell and Touch Develops Human’s Capacity for Harmony

How the Chemnistry of Smell and Touch Develops Human’s Capacity for Harmony

“The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

–Erich Fromm

Most parents are aware of the importance of successful bonding between mother and child. The complex combination of scent, sound, hormonal secretions, heartbeat, and skin-to-skin contact all serve to create and reinforce that bond just moments after a baby is born. While those moments are important, just as important are the days, months, and years that follow. That’s why so many studies about bonding between mother and child have been conducted that it has become a science.

The Importance of Scent in Bonding Between Mother and Child

It is a science that consists of many sciences, including chemistry. For example, pheromones are the chemicals that physically attract humans to one another. Well, babies fairly ooze those pheromones, which is part of the reason that so many people find them irresistible. Most people don’t think much about the role of their sense of smell in their lives. Modern media focuses primarily on the senses of sight and sound. However, advertisers recognizing the power of scent were quick to take advantage of scratch and sniff technology, which is used to increases the sale of expensive perfumes.

The importance of scent in the process of bonding between mother and child was demonstrated by a scientific study. After spending just ten minutes with their newborn infants, 90 percent of mothers were able to correctly identify their newborns by scent alone. After spending an hour with their babies, 100 percent of them were able to distinguish their own babies’ scent from the scent of other babies.

The Importance of Touch in Bonding Between Mother and Child

Dr. Deepak Chopra, an endocrinologist and best-selling author of more than 80 books on topics of human well-being, says that successful bonding between mother and child can help prevent diseases by boosting immunity and even contribute to a higher I.Q. An important part of that bonding is the element of human touch. His assertion has been reinforced by several scientific studies.

In a study at Ohio State University, it was demonstrated that cuddling produces chemical changes in the body that can reduce the negative effects of common environmentally caused medical conditions. In this case, cuddling protected the rabbits against some of the physical consequences of high cholesterol diets, like clogged arteries.
Science leaves no doubt about the power of human touch. Another study that was published in Pediatrics magazine found that premature babies who were frequently touched and stroked gained almost 50 percent more weight than those who weren’t. In addition to promoting bonding between mother and child, skin-to-skin contact has been proven to provide a number of other health benefits. It can even regulate a baby’s temperature, because a mother’s breasts automatically adjust temperature, heating up or cooling down according to the baby’s needs.

Physical affection also releases hormones that activate specific genes that help reduce the physical effects of stress. Babies, being helpless to exert any control over their own environments, are especially sensitive to stress. They are quite literally little more than a bundle of nerves responding to a series of unfamiliar physical and environmental stimuli. They depend on adults to provide warmth, relieve their hunger, and soothe their fears.

Obstacles to Successful Bonding

Despite a wealth of scientific evidence that demonstrates the importance of the bonding process, there are a number of obstacles that can interfere. One of those obstacles is a family history in which a mother has not successfully bonded with her own mother. This may have been as a result of neglect or abuse. According to statistics, childhood trauma greatly increases the risk for a number of diseases later in life. Traumas associated with abuse or neglect often result in former victims repeating that behavior themselves.

A link between poverty and stress has been firmly established by the scientific community. Further, a link between stress and mental and emotional illnesses that often lead to child abuse and neglect has also been established. Unfortunately, due to current economic and social policies the number of mothers and children living in poverty world-wide continues to grow.

Popular comedian John Oliver addresses the very serious issue of social conditions that often interfere with successful bonding between mother and child. Although some may find his language offensive, most find the social phenomenon he describes even more so. All the scientific knowledge about the physical, mental, emotional and social benefits of bonding will be of greater value when social policies enable parents to fully utilize it.

bonding between mother and child

maternal genes

Nature and Nurture: A Complex and Delicate Dance

The Role of Maternal Genes in Embryonic Development

The link between genes and human behavior has been a subject of scientific research since before the discovery of DNA in 1953. There is still much that is unknown about how human genes interact with biological and chemical processes and the extent to which those processes are affected by the environment. Epigenetics is the study of how the expression of genes is modified by factors such as social experiences, diet and nutrition and exposure to toxins. Behavioral epigenetics examines the role of epigenetics in shaping behavior.

Children share half of their alleles with each parent. The maternal genes contribute the maternal gamete which develops as an egg that becomes an embryo when fertilized. Maternal genes containing RNA and protein are present before the development of zygotic genes that takes place after fertilization. The development of the embryo relies exclusively on maternal genes for its early development processes until the embryonic genome is activated. In humans, the embryonic genome is activated within 4 cleavage cycles.

How Maternal and Paternal Genes Affect Parenting Style

Parenting styles can be affected by both maternal and paternal genes in combination with the environment. Michael Meaney provided the first documented example of epigenetics affecting behavior in 2004, when his research team found that how a rat responds to stress later in life is affected by the amount of nurturing a mother rat provides during infancy. Nurturing behaviors stimulate activation of pathways that remove methyl groups from DNA, allowing the glucocorticoid gene, which lowers stress response, to be activated.

Epigenetics provides evidence that the nature versus nurture controversy has been resolved and that each is shaped by the other through a series of complex chemical, biological and environmental interactions. One article about how parenting styles are affected by behavioral epigenetics points out that environmental stress can cause methyl groups to become attached to genes. This causes epigenetic changes that can be passed down from generation to generation through affected maternal genes.

How Environment Can Affect Paternal and Maternal Genes

One study compared brain samples of 36 victims of suicide. The one third of those who were known to have suffered childhood abuse showed distinct epigenetic methylation marks or characteristics in their DNA that were not present in the control group or the group with no known childhood abuse. Those marks specifically influenced the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function of the brain. Another study revealed that poverty can also change the way in which DNA is expressed. Blood samples of 40 men all born in 1958 from differing economic backgrounds revealed genetic changes based on family income during childhood.
However, not only economic poverty, but a poverty of physical affection can also affect gene expression. Researchers compared blood samples of 14 children being raised in Russian orphanages with blood samples of 14 children being raised by their biological parents. The children in the orphanage were found to have a greater degree of methylation in the genes affecting neural communication and brain development than the children receiving more individual attention from parents.

These discoveries about how maternal and paternal genes are affected by environmental factors have raised the question of whether some mothers parenting skills may be adversely affected by their DNA. According to a recent paper, RS3, an allele of one of the potential maternal genes, the AVPR1A gene, was linked in a study to lower levels of maternal behavior in women and in more aggressive behaviors in children. Not everyone carries this allele, but it is fairly common in humans and has also been associated with some forms of autism.

The most exciting aspect of these scientific discoveries about the interaction genes with the environment is that one day all prospective parents will have the necessary information to help them make healthy parenting choices. They provide scientific evidence of what most parents already knew—that parenting choices have the power to affect generations to come. Hopefully, this knowledge will be used to create social programs that will educate parents and provide whatever degree of assistance necessary to enable them to use that power wisely.

maternal genes
Maternal Affection Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1861) Signed and dated 1837
first months of family life

Humanity’s Happy Scientists: On Independent thought and Counterfactual thinking of Babies

“Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults.”

–Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik, is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. As an international pioneer in the study of child development and learning, she was the first to posit the theory that children’s minds could teach adult minds a thing or two. Her “theory of mind” focuses on how children understand the minds of others and is based on the premise that children learn in much the same way as scientists do, through a process of active experimentation.

Her 1999 book , “The Scientist in the Crib” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) received rave reviews by several prestigious magazines, including the New Yorker, and has been translated into 20 languages. She has also written over 100 articles for various publications, including New Scientist, Slate, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her 2009 book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life” offers some provocative theories about the first months of family life.

According to Gopnik, in modern times, the first months of family life have become far too socially isolated. Ideally, the first months of family life, rather than often being in the care of a single adult or couple, children should have the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of people with varying degrees of commitment to their well-being.

She attributes the development of life-long familial attachments that begin from the first months of family life, which doesn’t exist for other primates, to the relatively prolonged helplessness of the human infant. In a sense, it is that helplessness which created selfless love. That selfless love is essential in the first months of family life and to children reaching adulthood.

Childhood learning is one of Gopnik’s specialties, and she believes that adults can learn a lot from children as well. She posits that because adults, in order to earn a living, must perform so many repetitive actions, their minds can lose its natural curiosity and excitement for learning. This can make the first months of family life more difficult. She compares babies’ minds to scientific research and development departments. Babies approach life like travelers in a world in which everything is new.

Like scientists, babies draw conclusions from physical data, and even statistical analyses, such as when they experiment with what will prompt a smile or positive response from their caretakers. She also believes they are capable of what is termed “counterfactual thinking”, which is defined as the ability to imagine different past or future outcomes from those that have actually occurred.

According to a review in Scientific American, she was influenced by the work of psychologist John Hagen of the University of Michigan. His work includes developing alternative learning environments. For example, in one of his labs, the room has no front or rear, the chairs are on wheels and cameras are utilized for a variety of purposes. One of his research studies found that young children were better than older children at remembering playing cards that they had been instructed to forget, a fact which points to the capacity of babies for independent thought.

In addition to working as an educator, she is also a political activist for positive educational change for children. In her capacity as educational activist, she has given several keynote speeches to organizations such as the World Economic Forum as well as organizations that advocate specifically for children, such as Parents as Teachers. She has also lectured for science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as appearing on television shows such as Nova and NPR radio programs.

In a video interview, she advocates for experiential education, in which children are guided in developing skills by doing and receiving feedback on their performance. She recommends apprenticeships in which young people can observe and experience the activities of those who are already working in professions that they themselves hope to work in one day. This approach would also help them learn whether they are emotionally or psychologically well suited for the job, or what characteristics they would need to develop further to be successful at it.

She also revealed in the interview that none of her psychological training or professional expertise helped during her first months of family life or in parenting her own three children. Theories are just that, and real life has a way of being much more unpredictable, especially when human emotions are involved.

According to Gopnik, there are some things adults can do to reclaim their own natural curiosity and excitement about learning. She recommends travel, meditation, and spending time with and learning from children, as well as teaching them.

One of her personal and professional goals has been to cultivate more respect for children and their innate brilliance, rather than devaluing them and continuing to relegate them to social isolation with one another. She seems to be succeeding admirably.

first months of family life
Giant Baby Head in fiberglass, by Freezelight, Flickr CC2.0
nurturing placenta

The Placenta: The Source of all Human Life

“The beautiful life-giving placenta is given back to the earth to continue is life-giving journey. Family and friends can be invited and a libation can be given to the ancestors. Thank the spirit guides and the placenta for protecting the child”.

–West African quote

The Role of the Nurturing Placenta in Celebrating the Miracle of Birth

Throughout history, in many cultures, the nurturing placenta, one of the miracles that makes life possible, has played an important part in rituals and ceremonies celebrating the birth of life. For example, in Indonesian culture, and many others, the placenta is believed to be a protective link between the child and the earth. Fathers are responsible for either burying the placenta near home to endure that the child remains close to the family, or taking it to sea to ensure travel and a wide perspective.

Regarded as sacred, some cultures believed its nurturing properties prevented bleeding, depression and other ailments associated with childbirth. Others, such as those in Russia and China, have used it as medicine to treat fatigue and infertility. Some cultures practice the ritual of placentophagy, in which the placenta is eaten. According to one article, the nurturing placenta is the mother of us all.

Functions of the Nurturing Placenta

The nurturing placenta, named for the Latin word for “cake” is a pancake-shaped organ that connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall. It serves many other functions as well. In addition to providing oxygen and vital nutrients, it also eliminates waste through a process called diffusion. Using IgG antibodies, it fights infections, provides immunities and produces essential hormones.

Human chorionic gonadotropin is the hormone that prevents spontaneous abortion. Progesterone serves to help the embryo pass through the fallopian tubes and implant successfully. It also stimulates an increase in secretions for fetal nutrition. Estrogen is crucial for growth of the fetus and production of milk after the birth of the baby as well as increasing the blood supply.

Development of the Nurturing Placenta

The placenta develops in layers from a single blastocyst The outer layer of the blastocyst becomes the trophoblast, and forms the outer layer of the placenta. This outer layer is further divided into two more layers called the cytotrophoblas and the syncytiotrophoblast layers. The syncytiotrophoblas covers the surface of the placenta.

The average fully developed placenta measures approximately 22 cm (9 inch) in length and 2–2.5 cm (0.8–1 inch) in thickness. It is thickest in the center and thinnest around the edges. Crimson in color, it weighs just over one pound or 500 grams. The 55-60 cm (22 to 24 inches) umbilical cord is developed by the nurturing placenta to connect mother and child through the chorionic plate. Maternal blood begins circulating through the placenta towards the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, coming into contact with the fetal chorion. Deoxygenated fetal blood passes through umbilical arteries to the placenta, where it is oxygenated and carried to the baby through the umbilical vein.

From Nurturing Placenta to Afterbirth

The process of placental expulsion, the final stage of delivery doesn’t begin until 15 to 30 minutes after the birth of the child. In some traditions, it is customary for the father of the child to make the symbolic gesture of cutting the umbilical cord.

For many years, in Western cultures, the attending doctor cut the cord immediately after birth. However, that practice is slowly changing as new parents move towards more holistic and traditional methods of childbirth, such as the use of doulas or midwives, rather than hospital births. A practice called “lotus birth” in which the umbilical cord is not cut at all is gaining popularity. Even without cutting the cord, the placenta would fall away naturally within a day or two.

According to one article, some experts believe that because the area around the umbilical cord seals itself about an hour after birth, by not clamping and cutting the cord, newborns can get one last beneficial transfusion of blood from the nurturing placenta. Placental blood is rich in stem cells and immunoglobulin that helps fight infections.

Today’s parents have the benefit of combining age-old natural wisdom and modern medical technology to make childbirth the safest and best experience possible.

nurturing placenta
Wooden placenta bowl, Maori, New Zealand,1890-1925 Science Museum A6697, #L0064825

The Dance of Life: The Bond Between Mother and Child

“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”

–Sophia Loren

The Senses and the Bond Between Mother and Child

In the animal world, the first bond between mother and child is that of scent. The mother’s secretion of estrogen and that of the child “match” perfectly. In nature, it is one of the ways that an animal is able to recognize its mother. In cases in which an animal has died while giving birth, farmers will often rub the baby animal with the placenta of another mother, which results in that mother accepting it as her own. However, the time in which this is possible is just two hours.

To test whether the same was true of humans, Lee Salk, a child psychologist, separated 115 mothers from their newborn babies for twenty-four hours after birth. 80 percent of the mothers who had contact with their babies within the first twenty-four hours of life held their babies on their left sides, close to the heart. Mothers that had been separated from their babies showed no preferred side for holding their babies.

After performing other tests which separated mothers and infants for longer periods of time, but not within the first twenty-four hours, he concluded that like other mammals, the strongest bond between mother and child may be formed within the first twenty-four hours. In another study, babies who were exposed to their mother’s regular heartbeat weighed more and cried less. If the heartbeat is irregular due to stress, babies respond accordingly by becoming restless.

In a study conducted in Sweden, forty mothers had skin-to-skin contact with their newborn infants during the first thirty minutes of life. The relationships between these infants and their mothers was observed three months later and compared to those of mothers and infants that had not experienced skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth. The bond between mother and child seemed to be stronger in the first group, expressed by their facing one another for longer periods of time and fewer complaints by mothers regarding feeding times that interfered with sleep. These babies also cried less and smiled more.

The strong yet fragile bond between mother and child begins with the secretion of hormones during delivery, making the first hour after birth extremely important to the bonding process. The mother’s secretion of estrogen and that of the child “match” perfectly. Just as our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are affected by hormonal changes, the reverse is also true.

Socialization and the Bond Between Mother and Child

The production of hormones can also be triggered by our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Whether our thoughts are pleasant or disturbing has an effect on what type of hormone, and how much of it, is produced by the body. Separating our thoughts from the chemical reactions they cause within our bodies would be as impossible as separating a mother bear from her cub.

In some species of apes, the mother does not allow any other animal to care for her offspring. However, in other species, such as the Bonnet macaque, care of the young is shared by a number of community members, both related and non-related to the mother. The capacity for accepting help from others in caring for our young is one of the things that separates humans from our evolutionary cousins, the primates.

What a mother thinks about the meaning of having a child has the power to determine how she will behave towards the child. Unlike precocial animals that mature quickly and can follow their mothers within hours after birth, humans are altricial, and raising a child to maturity can take twenty years. That’s why her thoughts about having children are so important.

The results of studies can support many different hypotheses about the bond between mother and child. Perhaps the fact that our thoughts can affect our chemistry and our behavior, and socialization can affect our thoughts is one of the reasons it is so difficult for mothers to trust their own instincts. Many continue to rely on social customs that have not always proven to be in the best interests of supporting the natural bond between mother and child.
In the final analysis, most mothers are as dependent upon society for survival as their children are dependent upon them. However, between six and ten months, human infants begin to show signs of attachment to siblings and other important people in their lives. This all means that mothers have many years, as well as help from others, to continue to develop and strengthen the bond with their babies.

Our body chemistry and our thought processes are always in the midst of a dance so complex that it is often difficult to tell which partner is leading. The bond between mother and child is one of the most beautiful results of this dance of life.

bond between mother and child
Kiss (mother version) by Leonid Mamchenkov, Flickr CC2.0
instinctive survival

The Evolution of Childhood: Earlier Puberty and Instinctive Survival

“Empowering women is the next step in human evolution, and as the uniquely endowed creatures we are, we can choose to help bring it about.”

–Melvin Konner

Dr. Melvin Konner, author and professor at Emory University combines anthropology, neuroscience and behavioral psychology to formulate some theories about the evolution of human instinctive survival skills. His book, “The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind” received rave reviews. If you’ve ever wondered why humans take so long to reach maturity compared to other mammals, he presents some interesting answers.

According to Konner, in order for women’s bodies to accommodate the evolutionary increase in the size of the human brain during childbirth, women began giving birth three months sooner than the ideal twelve month gestation period. This premature birth accounts for the complete helplessness of the human infant compared to other mammal infants. That larger brain continues to mature for the 7 to 10 years of childhood until puberty. During that time, one instinctive survival technique for most cultures is to begin entrusting children with increasingly complex tasks, which in Western culture is usually schoolwork.

While it may be mature enough in childhood for short term tasks, the brain continues developing for several more years. The frontal lobe of the brain responsible for suppressing impulses and controlling behavior isn’t fully developed until approximately age 20. The combination of a fully developed body, a still developing brain, and the addition of hormones can make adolescence an instinctive survival challenge for parents. However, Konner suggests that the expectation of Western culture that children move out on their own at the age of 18 may be a contributing factor to the difficulty of adolescence.

In many other cultures, children continue to live with their parents or extended family until they are married, sometimes as late as their thirties. Gaining independence and all the responsibilities associated with it is easier with a fully developed brain and without surging hormones. Konner believes that adolescents often rebel as a way of rejecting parents who they feel are rejecting them through their expectations that they leave home and achieve independence in the near future.

Recent Evolutionary Biological Changes for Instinctive Survival

Human evolution is the result of adaptation to both the physical and social environments. One recent evolutionary change, that of puberty being younger than the previous generation, has been in response to social customs. One of the possible reasons is improved nutrition. However, while puberty has accelerated, the development of the human brain hasn’t, which is one reason that the hormones associated with puberty cause more aggressive behavior There is also some evidence to suggest that earlier puberty can be triggered by a consistency negative, abusive or neglectful home environment. Stress hormones can trigger physical changes helpful for survival, including early puberty.

One reason humans achieved supremacy over other mammals was because of a longer life span after menopause, which resulted in more people to care for children. In an interview with Salon magazine, he suggested that homosexuality may serve a similar instinctive survival purpose. Many homosexual couples do not reproduce themselves, but often care for children of siblings and friends, as well as adopt children. Konner points to the fact that other species accept homosexuality for much the same reason.

Political Power for Women—A Modern Evolutionary Instinctive Survival Tool

Konner champions the empowerment of women, and points to scientific biological evidence that women may be better suited to serve in politically powerful positions than men. For example, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, he referred to a study of 120 mayors of cities over 30,000 which included 65 men and 55 women. The study concluded that women are more likely to seek and encourage broad participation and reallocate funds for necessary programs than men. They are also less likely to solve problems using violence and aggression.

In response to those who point to women in power who have waged war, such as Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, he says that

“…these women were perched atop all-male hierarchies confronting other hyper-masculine political pyramids, and they were masculinized as they fought their way to the top.”

Much aggressive behavior is caused by testosterone. During gestation in males, testosterone creates the potential for future aggression by affecting the development of the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Women’s brains are less affected by testosterone, which makes them more likely to deal with conflict by using diplomacy rather than violence.

Now that technology has reduced the importance of physical size and strength as instinctive survival tools, it makes good evolutionary sense that women assume more equal positions of power.

Evolution of man

scientific baby care

How Scientific Baby Care Can Increase Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence

“Each time you help your child think and feel about what he is experiencing, and each time you find the right words for his intense feelings, you are probably helping the development of more sophisticated communication networks in your child’s corpus callosum.”

Margot Sunderland

The Latest Developments in Scientific Baby Care

UNICEF,  United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, an organization devoted to the well-being of children, regularly holds conferences for the purposes of presenting the newest scientific discoveries related to parenting. At a 2012 UNICEF conference, psychologist, author and director of the Centre for Child Mental Health in London Margot Sunderland gave a presentation of her latest scientific findings. That information may just prove to make the world a better place, one family at a time. According to one review, that information, contained in her book, “The Science of Parenting” may just prove to make the world a happier place, one family at a time.

It’s fairly well-known that the global use of anti-depressants has skyrocketed since 2000 and continues to increase each year. While depression can be the result of social and economic conditions such as war and poverty, it can also be the result of the body’s inability to produce sufficient amounts of the naturally occurring substances that prevent it.

The body’s ability to produce oxytocin, prolactin, and benzodiazepines, all of which contribute to reducing anxiety and aggression and increasing social bonding, can be affected by changes in the brain. Secure attachment and positive relationships between parents and children activate production of these naturally occurring hormones.

The Relationship Between Interactions, Hormones, and Brain Development

Brain connections develop and multiply rapidly between birth and the age of three, during which they double more than 20 times. The results of several studies have demonstrated that parental interaction is the single most important factor in stimulating intellectual and emotional growth. For example, one study showed a greater increase in vocabulary in children whose parents verbally transmitted information while interacting than those who were exposed to the same information through a video.

As much as our amazing technology may separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, our limbic systems still have the same innate responses to stimuli as those of other mammals. Part of scientific baby care is increasing parental knowledge of the biological responses associated with familial interactions. For example, when a baby cries, blood pressure and stress hormones are elevated, and its heart rate, temperature and breathing fluctuate. If the baby’s cry is not responded to, several physical responses occur. Those responses include a lower heart rate and temperature and the release of a growth-inhibiting hormone called somatostatin. These physical responses are part of going into survival mode, an evolutionary adaptation of all higher mammals to avoid attracting predators through continued distress signals such as crying. Since no parent is capable of responding immediately and appropriately every time their child cries, it is estimated that up to 30% of parenting is a matter of repairing the damage that the demands of modern daily life have on the parent-child relationship.

Scientific Baby Care Results in Action

In today’s modern fast-paced world, the time required for sustained meaningful interaction is at a premium, especially for working parents. Luckily, the results of some scientific studies are not only finding new reasons for parents to feel guilty, but providing the basis for new inventions that allow even busy parents to benefit from them. Some of them are even inspiring new scientific baby care inventions capable of increasing the quality and frequency of parent-child interaction.

For example, according to one study, one of the ways that parents can provide more of the crucial face-to-face contact necessary for secure attachment, brain development, and the production of life-sustaining hormones is by using a parent-facing baby carriage. The study involved 2,722 parents and found that parents interacted with their babies twice as much using a face-to-face carriage. Babies also initiated interaction with their parent more often. Children who faced forward had difficulty attracting their parent’s attention and parents were unable to observe their babies facial expressions to determine their level of distress.

The first reversible stroller in which the child could face either the parent or outwards was invented in 1889 by William Richardson. However, due to the invention of cars and more frequent travel, the outward facing umbrella stroller invented in 1965 by aeronautical engineer Owen Maclaren quickly became popular.

The findings of scientific baby care experts has resulted in the re-emergence of reversible strollers. This reversal proves that sometimes progress in scientific baby care consists of adapting technology to our humanity, rather than adapting our humanity to technology.

outsourcing baby care
Child and Doll by Lillybridge, Charles S., 1849-1935 – Denver Public Library Photoswest. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commo
Instinctive Parenting

Instinctive Parenting: The Attempt To Re-Unite Nature And Nurture

“Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone. Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable. If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.”

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

A colleague of Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, one of the things he concerned himself with was refuting the “blank slate” theory. He also addressed the issue of human aggression and mankind’s frequent desire to transcend the limitations of their own humanity in order to reduce its influence on society. That desire has resulted in both many astounding achievements and some unfortunate consequences. Instinctive parenting, he argued, is a combination of nature and nurture. His insistence that we are indeed a part of the animal kingdom is evident in the title of his highly regarded yet relatively unknown book, Human Ethology.

Breastfeeding is one of the best examples of how nature is designed to elicit nurture. Through the body’s milk production, a win-win situation is created in that nursing relieves the pressure of overfull breasts while simultaneously relieving the pain of the baby’s empty stomach. Much of what is referred to as instinctive parenting is rooted in human physiology, so it’s appropriate that a baby searching for a nipple is referred to as “rooting”.

However, while instinctive parenting behaviors may be hard-wired, they are also dependent upon stimuli from the environment, such as the sound of a hungry baby’s cry, to be triggered. Modern mothers were discouraged from breastfeeding, and given the impression bottle feeding represented the next stage in human evolution in which they would no longer be controlled by biology. However, this view has too often resulted in parents being controlled not by nature, but by corporations selling manufactured baby formula instead.

Animal behaviors that are referred to as “instinctual” are not just the result of innate genetic programming, but are in fact a combination of physical imperatives combined with complex interactions with the environment. Among those interactions are observations of the parenting behavior of other animals within a species. Contrary to popular belief, animal mothers that do not have the opportunity to observe parenting behavior often have difficulty carrying out their maternal duties. Despite the powerful imperative of instinct, the same is true for humans.

Unfortunately, many social constructs, such as the division of labor and the nuclear family, reduce opportunities for active observation and physical emulation of parenting skills. This reduces the number of environmental stimuli that trigger instinctual parenting responses. Compared to “primitive” pre-industrial societies, today’s parents experience a much higher degree of social isolation.

The importance of physical hands-on experience is has been demonstrated through numerous studies. One long-term study based on John Bowlby’s attachment theories demonstrated that babies receiving physical contact with their parents within the first hour after birth displayed long-lasting positive effects. Hospitals have since made changes that recognize the results of these findings, such as postponing routine tests and treatments until after the parents and child have had some bonding time.

Baby talk is another example of instinctual parenting. Babies are able to distinguish high-pitched sounds more easily. Consequently, without any conscious reasoning, both mothers and fathers naturally speak to babies in a higher octave than their normal conversational voices. The shift in tone also helps the baby identify when they are hearing sounds meant specifically for them, which gives them a pleasurable sense of being included. In the 1930’s and 40’s baby talk was discouraged on the theory that it impeded children’s language learning ability. In fact, even innate language-learning ability is dependent on environmental stimuli, which includes emotional bonding that results in a desire to communicate more intimately. That’s one reason that even adults who are dating indulge in baby-talk.

Other environmental stimuli that trigger instinctive parenting responses are smiling, crying, and touching. Parents worldwide experience the same joyful bonding response to the first time their baby grasps their finger with its tiny ones. Pheromones also play a role in stimulating social responses. Largely due to overcrowding in cities as well as corporate advertising, it has become common to mask our natural odors with manufactured products. The sweet-smelling scent of her baby is one of the environmental triggers for releasing a mother’s breast milk.

Oxytocin and prolactin, both found in high concentrations in new mothers, have been shown to trigger instinctive parenting behaviors. These powerful hormones have a calming effect, which prepares the mother for lactation, breastfeeding and cuddling with her baby. Negative environmental stimuli that causes emotional disturbance can disrupt the production of these hormones. This could be one reason why children of mothers living in poverty exhibit more behaviors indicative of attachment disorders.

Instinctive parenting may be considered “primitive” but what is referred to as instinctive parenting needs to be very closely tied to the early hours, days and weeks of a newborn with the adult or parent.

Instinctive Parenting

natural instincts

About The Natural Instincts That Determine The Way We Are Mothers

Forces of Nature

As a result of the nature versus nurture debate, most experts now agree that both natural instincts and environment are important factors in understanding human behavior. The debate now centers around determining the ratio of each. While we might like to believe that our behavior is based on conscious choices, there is some evidence that suggests that like other members of the animal kingdom, we too possess innate patterns of behavior. For example, like other species, humans too transmit chemical signals through pheromones, which contribute to eliciting behaviors such as dating and marriage.

Instinctual behavior

The limbic system controls much of our instinctual behavior by processing emotions related to external stimuli such as sight, touch, sound, and smell, that prompt a behavioral response. Some instinctive behaviors include aggression, defense, social hierarchy and care. In rats, when the olfactory system detects pheromones from the opposite sex, the signals are sent to the medial amydala, which then sends other signals to other parts of the brain. This complex process involves pathways of innate circuitry between organs and sensory receptors.

Qualifying Characteristics of Natural Instincts

Innate behavior can be defined as behavior that is determined by our nervous systems.

For a behavior to be classified as one of the natural instincts, it must demonstrate the following seven qualifying characteristics:

  1. automatic
  2. irresistible
  3. occurs at some point in development
  4. triggered by some event in the environment
  5. occurs in every member of the species
  6. cannot be modified
  7. governs behavior that requires no training

One example of instinctive behaviors or natural instincts with regard to motherhood that is actually scientifically proven according to this definition is the rooting and suckling of newborn infants.

A Study of Natural Instincts

The idea that the psychology should be a science separate from biology and focused on the study of human consciousness was introduced by Wilhelm Wundt in the 1870s. Natural instincts were thought to play a very small role in determining human behavior. In 1951, Dutch biologist and Nobel Prizewinner Nikolaas Tinbergen published “A Study of Instinct”, which proved to be highly influential. He classified behavior based on natural instincts as that which was not affected by the learning process.

However, while his theories remain the foundation for current studies on child development, others define innate behavior differently. For example, in his book “The Language Instinct”, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker theorizes that language acquisition is an instinctive behavior. Richard Herrnstein, author of “The Bell Curve” presented a mathematical formula he called the “matching law” which expressed his findings that human behavior is controlled largely by social reinforcement.

The Power of Learning and Our Learning Instinct

Abraham Maslow believed that humans no longer have innate behaviors because they are able to override  natural instincts towards a certain behavior. He referred to biologically based behaviors as “drives”.

In her 2010 book “Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct”, Amanda Spink refers to child rearing as an “evolved psychological mechanism” with a basis in natural instincts.

Michael McCollough, a positive psychologist, believes that social environment plays a bigger role than natural instincts in determining important socially reactive behaviors such as revenge or forgiveness.

Fortunately, even though parenting may consist of some innate behaviors based on internal chemical reactions, it also consists of many learned behaviors. New parenting behaviors are continually being introduced into the social lexicon as humans adapt to technological innovations. For example, the child rearing “instinct” has been applied primarily to women due to their physiological ability to give birth and nurse an infant. It has even been termed the “maternal instinct”. Now, however, the term “paternal instinct” has been introduced and is growing in popularity.

Thankfully, we no longer believe that parenting skills are the biological result of maternal natural instincts. Women are no longer expected to be ideal mothers just by virtue of having been born female. Increasingly, they are no longer shamed for enlisting support in parenting or for choosing not to become mothers at all. That means an increase in the number of children who are truly wanted in the world.

We haven’t even begun to study the full extent to which we are all affected by innate patterns of behavior. Part of the reason for this is the most studies are funded by governments or corporations with specific agendas. An overview of what is currently being taught reveals that we still have a long way to go towards healing the schisms that result from building cultural structures without sufficient scientific information about our own humanity. As our knowledge about what it means to be human increases, our social institutions too will become more humane.

natural instincts
Blessed Art Thou among Women, Gertrude Käsebier, 1899, Credit Line Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933

Explaining Motherhood: Is it Instinctive?

Motherhood does not come with an instruction manual, yet somehow women take to their motherly duties seemingly by instinctive ability. Many who are thrust in this role by choice or by circumstance face a lot of anxiety but pursue their role tenaciously regardless of the self-doubt. Reflecting society’s high expectations for mothers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“Men are what their mothers made them.”

Is Motherhood Instinctive?

In 2013, close to 4 million births were registered in the U.S., indicating a slight decline in birth rate. Even as women pursue high-flying careers outside the home, it remains clear that motherhood is a milestone integral to the story arc. While blazing new trails in the professional world, women have displayed their capacity to cope with the traditional role as nurturer and primary caregiver to young children.

An interesting study conducted by researchers in Tokyo used magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs to monitor the reactions of mothers shown silent films of their own infant in comfortable and under stressful situations. The mothers’ reactions to seeing their infant in distress were particularly strong, suggesting an instinctive biological response to certain infant care demands according to the authors of the study.

On the other hand, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis takes a different view based on her research. Instinctive maternal responses exist, but her research propounds that maternal instincts are more correctly described as biological conditioning rather than true instinct. Hrdy believes that a woman can care for any child regardless of biological connection if she had the existing desire to be a mother and was given time to be with the child. She has been involved in primate research for at least three decades and “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection” discusses which maternal behaviors are biological, instinctive or wishful social constructs. For a more in-depth article on Hrdy’s views, go here.

Instinctive and Learned Strategies

It is understood that the tasks and responsibilities of mothers are varied, expansive and ever changing as the needs of the children evolve. Nonetheless, mothers are able to navigate this pathway with aplomb, adjusting to the demands on their time, physical, mental and social capabilities.

The so-called maternal instinct could best be described as a predisposition to a range of strategies and responses to certain circumstances. These responses could be learned from other mothers and mother figures. Personal experiences often provide social cues and the framework through which mothers can negotiate the tasks associated with being a mother.

Maternal behavior in the animal kingdom

One of the ways that scientists in various fields seek to explain the nuances of maternal behavior is by observing the behavior of mothers in the animal kingdom.

Giraffe mothers are known to sacrifice their own lives to lions that are after their calves. African elephants will attack vehicles that they perceive as dangers to their young. North American killdeer will lure predators away from the nest by faking a broken wing and sometimes losing their life in the process. There are also documented instances when mother animals would step in and take care of babies that are not theirs, which is something that human mothers do all the time.

Understanding what makes mothers tick is a fascinating subject as mothers have been romanticized and idealized in many ways. In the end, what matters most is that mothers are given ample opportunity and adequate support to define their own place in society.