Why do natural mothering advocates pretend that all babies are alike?

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One of the best things about having four children is that you quickly learn that each is an individual from the moment of birth. One infant loves to be snuggled; another hates it. One baby is soothed by a pacifier; another refuses it altogether. One child is constantly striving for new experiences and milestones; another hangs back for fear of the unknown.

That’s why I can’t understand the natural mothering penchant to portray each infant as the same as every other.

Natural mothering advocates assume babies are frightened by life outside the womb when actually they might be fascinated.

Consider this from Lucy Ruddle, IBCLC. I’ve seen similar sentiments from other natural mothering advocates, but she expresses it most eloquently:

Let’s imagine the womb…

Dark, warm, lovely muffly sounds from outside, you’re naked, suspended in fluid. Nothing is scratchy, cold, or bright.

Let’s compare that to a cot in a hospital / nursery / living room…

Bright lights, cold air blowing through every time someone walks by. Loud, sharp noises – bells, alarms, the TV, a dog, children. You’re wearing a scratchy nappy and clothes. You’re laying in all this SPACE, you feel exposed, scared. Your brain is hardwired to keep you safe, and it doesn’t know a cot is safe. You cry for help because your brain thinks we live in 2000BC and a wolf will eat you if you’re left exposed.
There’s ONE place where your heart rate lowers. Your temperature stabilises. Your stress hormones drop.
That’s the chest of another human.

The soothing sound of a familiar heartbeat. A familiar smell. Warmth, darkness, arms enclosing you safe and close.

Skin to skin contact is home for newborns.

How does Lucy know that this is how infants feel? She doesn’t; she just made it up to suit her personal beliefs. She believes that infants feel “safe” in the womb, are “frightened” by life outside it and crave skin-to-skin and breastfeeding to recreate that feeling of safety.

It’s a “just-so story.”

Most people are familiar with just-so stories through the book Just So Stories for Little Children by Rudyard Kipling:

Kipling began working on the book by telling the first three chapters as bedtime stories to his daughter Josephine. These had to be told “just so” (exactly in the words she was used to) or she would complain. The stories describe how one animal or another acquired its most distinctive features, such as how the leopard got his spots.

But a just-so story is an appealing fiction:

In science and philosophy, a just-so story is an unverifiable narrative explanation for a cultural practice, a biological trait, or behavior of humans or other animals. The pejorative nature of the expression is an implicit criticism that reminds the hearer of the essentially fictional and unprovable nature of such an explanation.

It is the opposite of a scientific explanation:

…[T]he first widely acknowledged use of the phrase in the modern and pejorative sense seems to have originated in 1978 with Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent paleontologist and popular science writer. Gould expressed deep skepticism as to whether evolutionary psychology could ever provide objective explanations for human behavior, even in principle; additionally, even if it were possible to do so, Gould did not think that it could be proven in a properly scientific way.

What evidence does Lucy Ruddle provide for her assessment of infant psychology? Absolutely none. How could she prove her claims are true? It’s not clear that she could. How much does her culture — a culture that postulates that if it’s natural, it must be best for babies — influence her theory? She never considers how or even whether it does.

Like most natural mothering advocates, she imagine that infants feel safe in the womb, but they could just as easily feel bored. Natural mothering advocates assume babies are frightened by life outside the womb when they might be fascinated. They tell themselves and each other that infants crave a return to the old when they might actually be impelled toward the new. They claim that babies brains are “designed” for 2000 BC when, in truth, they are “designed” to make the best use of whatever environment they are born into.

Anyone who has ever spent an extended amount of time with babies knows that they love to acquire new skills. Consider the effort — and the bumps and bruises — required in learning to walk. Prior to walking, they are carried everywhere by parents. Why should they learn to walk if someone else is willing to do the work for them? But they try, and they try, and they try again until they master the skill and seem to be thrilled with themselves when they do so.

The problems with the theory do not end with the fact that it is unprovable and to a large extend literally unknowable. In my view as a mother of four, the theory founders on the belief that all babies are exactly the same and therefore need exactly the same things. Not all of my children liked to be held. Some tried harder to reach developmental milestones and reached them earlier. Two were adventurous and loved anything new while two were hesitant and had trouble with transitions. I initially tried to treat them exactly the same; they quickly made it clear that they each wanted and needed different things from me.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that natural mothering claims to be about meeting baby’s individual needs, yet its advocates imagine that babies are all the same, not individuals.

  • Cat

    A question: what’s the deal with the “fourth trimester”? I’m always getting disapprovingly told on parenting boards to “google the fourth trimester!”. I’d always understood it as just a way of saying that babies are a bit helpless and cry a lot in the beginning. These people seem to be using it to mean ” science proves that newborns have to be held by the mother at all times like in the womb and getting outside help or using a cot will damage their development”. So, is “fourth trimester” actually a scientific term or just a popular one? And is there any consensus at all on what it means?

    • It’s not really scientific, hence varying definitions. But I was taught that it essentially refers to the state following birth until a woman’s body returns to its prepregnant state, which takes, give or take a week, about a month (the traditional “6 weeks” is a bit longer than necessary). A lot of physiological changes take place: the lochia gradually changes to a whitish discharge and ceases, the uterus involutes and returns to its original size and place in the pelvic cavity, there are major hormonal changes, lactation begins. Combined with this are the stresses of the baby’s demands on the mother, who’s still recovering from the exertion of giving birth.

      • Cat

        That is incredibly interesting – thank you. So it’s actually a term that centres on the mother, the changes in her body and her vulnerability post-birth? How depressing that it’s been so completely hijacked by the kind of people who like to erase the mother and her needs from the equation. I’ve only ever heard it bandied about in the context of “no, you can’t leave your partner in charge and take a break. Your baby needs you because FOURTH TRIMESTER!”

    • Nona Mandy

      The term surmises that babies are born a bit “underbaked” because that’s the only way they can traverse their mother’s pelvis before their heads get too big, and they have to stay as close to Mom in as womb-like an environment as possible, because the first few months are the “fourth trimester” for which they should supposedly have still be in the womb.

  • demodocus

    A friend jokes that when it took some but they finally figured out how to handle babies, and their second came along and she informed them that they were doing it ALL WRONG, lol. now grown, the kids are still pretty different

  • critter8875

    Just so stories:
    …The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees…

  • keepitreal

    They pretend all babies are alike because, at the end of the day, it’s not about the babies as much as it’s about the narcissistic mothers.

  • Anna

    Shes also building the narrative that bottle or tube feeding parents never hold their babies and that “good parents” hold their baby all day and night. Its important to build this narrative so that parents don’t “give in” and offer a bottle of formula, and see how their baby will sleep when its full instead of – getting so desperate for sleep they’ll happily fork over $150 an hour to an LC.
    My most content baby is the formula fed one. She was triple fed for 3weeks and as long as she was fed enough she would sleep soundly, through her toddler sister screaming, through the rubbish truck coming past and she sure looks pretty content and snuggly being fed her bottle even though – gasp – I wear a shirt most of the time. My fourth baby cried all the time, wouldn’t sleep, was miserable, didn’t seem to want to be cuddled, but also didn’t want to be put down – why? – because she was hungry! As soon as I gave up pumping and started using formula she was a different baby. It was a speech pathologist who finally gave me “permission” to stop torturing myself and my baby. I saw several LCs and they were all IBCLCs and maternal health nurses, even the lovely one that helped me, would not utter the F word. Its got to stop. Lucy and her ilk are shitty because if parents find out Fed is Best and a bottle of formula here or there won’t harm their baby they won’t pay her and she won’t be special for no real reason. Simple.

  • MaineJen

    Isn’t that the truth. I often say that if my two didn’t look so much alike, you’d never know they were related. They were even polar opposites as babies; my son was very high maintenance, cried a lot, pooped every 2 hours, ate voraciously. He always wanted to be held, but he hated any kind of wrap or carrier. By the time he was 6 weeks old, I felt like I’d been through a war.

    My daughter, on the other hand, was a very content and quiet baby, liked being held but was also fine if I put her in her crib, ate for 5 minutes at a time and then went straight to sleep. Loved the wrap and the front-carrier; I could take her anywhere. I actually got BORED while on maternity leave with her; she didn’t give me enough to do.

    They are born their own little people; sometimes I think most of my job is to just get out of their way!

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Our two boys don’t even look alike.

    • Box of Salt

      When I had my first baby I had thought “attachement parenting” meant responding to my baby’s cues. I discovered it was a face on parenting boards online because my baby’s cues were telling me to do far different things than the AP-obsessed moms recommended. That first baby broke all the rules.

      Then I had my second baby, and discovered that almost nothing I had learned from the first one applied to the second. It was just as if they were two different people!

      As for the paragraph by Lucy Ruddle quoted above . . .well, it didn’t apply to either baby after the first few days.

      • Box of Salt

        argh. proofreading. For “face” read farce.

      • Only one rule is required for successful child-raising: have the third child first.

        By the time #3 arrives, you’ve thrown away all the books, stopped listening to all the “helpful advice”, know what works for you, and have pretty much accepted that the kid’s going to do just fine regardless of your efforts or lack of them.

        • Cristina B

          I agree. I didn’t know I was supposed to care about half the shit people cared about until my first was a little older. I went into baby #2 with the same attitude.

  • mabelcruet

    And she’s flat out wrong about the baby being upset by loud noises. Noise levels in utero reach about 90 decibels (that’s like a train going past your kitchen window). You have your guts gurgling, your stomach growling, your blood positively gushing through the aorta at the speed of knots-babies love noise, its what they are used to. Putting them to sleep in a silent room is probably far more disturbing to them.

    Anecdata-my 3 niblings (great word I learned recently-the collective noun for ‘nieces and nephews) slept best in the utility room with the washing machine and tumble dryer on full blast, put them to sleep in minutes!

    • rational thinker

      My sister used to vaccum the floor to put my nephew to sleep cause the noise was soothing.

    • BeatriceC

      My grandson didn’t react even a little bit to hearing Frankie the cockatoo pitching a full blown cockatoo tantrum when he was just a couple weeks old and they came over for Thanksgiving dinner. While not the loudest of the cockatoos (that would be moluccans, who’ve been recorded to reach 135 decibels), umbrellas can still reach about 125 decibels. For comparison, a jet engine is about 140.

      • BeatriceC

        Also, I submit, for the most obnoxious sound ever:

        Last week I got an emergency message. An umbrella cockatoo had been dumped on this woman who was not at all prepared or capable of caring for him. He was underweight, not eating, and his feathers were in terrible shape as they were covered in cigarette smoke stains. She has several large dogs and a whole herd of cats and this bird was locked up as she was unable to take him out safely. She needed help fast. While I don’t really have the time or space to take on another U2, I also couldn’t, in good conscious, not go rescue the little guy. So I did.

        Well, the person who dumped him on this woman was a tow truck driver, and often took him to work with him. So imagine the sound of bad hydraulics on a flat bed tow truck. Then imagine how this would sound being mimicked by a cockatoo at top volume. I am so glad my neighbors are cool with my bird rescue activities, because even as immune as I am to bird noise, this sound is the most obnoxious I’ve ever heard.

        • CatCatCat

          I love it– because I sympathize! I have a pet European Starling, an excellent mimic. And I live across the street from the Fire Department. XD

          • BeatriceC

            Ohhhhh noooooo! We live about a mile from the police station and fire department and hear the sirens often, but not loud enough that the birds really pick up on the sounds.

          • BeatriceC

            But he is ridiculously cute, so he’s forgiven for that obnoxious noise. He will be searching for a forever home as soon as all his infectious disease tests come back and are either negative or he’s treated for anything he may have, but in the interim it helps that he’s adorable. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0f91d8c2346c2ae762dbd484995df800ccad13f52ee57dd14b7c0d4bbc01b5a3.jpg

          • CatCatCat

            He looks like a cocky little fellow. 😀

          • mabelcruet

            He looks like he’s dancing! There was a viral video a while back of two cockatoos and their human was playing music to them-one started headbanging with his feathers up and the other just looked at him, then started carefully shuffling away along the back of the chair they were sitting on…

        • mabelcruet

          I’m currently feeding a stray cat-he screams and yowls louder than any other cat I’ve ever come across, its really penetrating. He stands outside the cat flap and screams at me-he can’t get in because its microchip controlled, so I have to rush out with food for him to shush him. Cats only yowl and meow in response to humans, they don’t use it to communicate with each other, so obviously this stray has never learned to use his ‘indoors’ voice! At least he’s looking healthier-he was absolutely scrawny and covered in scars and bald patches when he first appeared. There was a trail of blood splatters on the patio that I followed and found him cowering under the acer tree. He (maybe she, haven’t got close enough yet) lets me get within arms reach to give him food, but no closer. One day I’ll manage to get him in the basket and off to the vet for a check up, but meanwhile I have to get him to quieten down because it annoys my lot so much!

          • BeatriceC

            Thank you for trying to rescue the kitty! Hopefully he’ll learn to trust you soon.

            For shits and grins we downloaded a decibel app to see just how loud the cockatoos are. We got Frankie in a scream fest without Sydney joining in. I posted on FB the screen cap showing 109.9 decibels, but then a little while later, after measuring when he was actually mad, I realized there was a max of 115. I think I may know the source of my headaches now. I didn’t realize they were quite so loud. These measurements were 2-4 feet away. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b5a585c9c24d65a9ab402ab68836311e55928dc04288ba2e86a36c630e698e0a.png

          • mabelcruet

            I think my cats would prefer it if I didn’t take on any others-they are totally greedy and I think they worry about their food being redistributed! I get major side-eye when they see me going outside with a plateful. How are your other birds coping with the new one?

          • BeatriceC

            My long term resident birds are used to a changing population, so they’re doing okay. Plus there’s a process. I keep new birds quarantined until after their vet check and infectious disease tests come back negative (or positive, and they’re treated and cleared). Since there are no vaccines for parrots, this is an important safety measure to keep the whole flock healthy. During the 7-30 days that takes (sometimes the labs are really backed up and the labs take a long time to come back), the birds get used to hearing each other without having to interact, so by the time I move the newbie into the bird room, everybody is at least somewhat familiar with each other.

            What they have a harder problem with is when a permanent resident bird isn’t around for whatever reason. Right now Donna, the lovebird, is at the vet’s. She hurt herself crashing into a window and stopped eating, so she spent the night last night at the vet’s for tube feeding and fluids. Little birds don’t have much wiggle room to stop eating when they don’t feel well, so this is the easiest way to get them back to good health. Poor little Liam, the budgie, who’s very bonded to Donna has spent the entire time staring at Donna’s cage, or in her cage, just crying and looking around. Even Frankie and Betty seem confused and keep looking for her, even though I don’t let the little birds and big birds interact with each other without cage bars in between (they have separate times they come out, or my 17yo takes the little birds to a different floor of the house for playtime if the big birds are out). Thankfully Donna will be home this afternoon. MrC has wheelchair dancing Saturday mornings so he needed the car (we only have one car because with me a housewife and him retired, we really don’t need two), so as soon as he gets home we will go get her.

          • mabelcruet

            Awww…cats do that too, they definitely have best friends and they definitely miss each other. When my older male cat died, his little sister was absolutely bewildered, she used to wander around the house, every room, under the beds, in the wardrobes, just looking for him and then looking at me and making sad little ‘mmrrp?’ noises, as though I was hiding him away. Anyone who says animals aren’t capable of emotion is talking nonsense.

          • rational thinker

            He may have had matted hair , sometimes with strays it can get so bad it looks like dreadlocks. If it is matted badly they can bleed from the hair coming loose when they are just walking or moving around.

          • mabelcruet

            He won’t let me near him to check-I was hoping I could get him in a food coma with roast chicken or something to make him less twitchy, but no luck so far. He’s got a broken tail I think-the tip of it is at 90 degrees, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by it. All the bald patches are around his head and shoulders-I live next to a park and golf course and was thinking he’d maybe been in a fight with foxes at some point.

          • rational thinker

            The tail is probably just a birth defect. I have had 3 cats within the past 20 years with bent or crooked tails. Two of them had crooked/bent part at the tip. My current kitty has about half of a tail and it is also bent it looks like an upside down L. It even gets accidentally hooked on things sometimes when he walks too close to something. So the tail may just be a birth defect and most likely doesn’t bother him at all.

            The next time you feed him get as close as he will allow and sit down next to him while he eats all his food. Also if he will make eye contact with you do a slow blink open and close your eyes while he is making eye contact make the blink last like 7 or 8 seconds. Keep eye contact and do it a couple more times. He will eventually blink slowly back at you when he trusts you more. This blinking activity is basically how cats say I like you and more importantly I trust you.

          • rational thinker

            Get him a can of sardines he will love you for it. Special treats help build trust.

        • AnnaPDE

          So THIS is what our Brisbane cockies try to imitate all the time! They probably learned it while playing chicken with the cars on the freeway. (No joke. There’s this pair that I see every time on my way home: they sit on a light pole, dive down to almost-car-level, go directly against the traffic flow and then pull up at the last moment.)
          Whoever came up with the word “singing” for the noises made by birds clearly never met a cockatoo.

          • BeatriceC

            Cockatoos are definitely not songbirds! I don’t mind their normal chatter. I train my birds to use “inside voices”, and it works for about 80% of their waking hours, maybe more. Their sweet conversational voices are just the the cutest thing. That scream though. Oh, boy can that get grating.

            So here’s the thing. It’s an evolutionary safety adaptation. Birds are prey animals. Birds that flock do so for safety (numbers and all). When it’s nearing bedtime, they “flock call”, to let all the members of the flock find their way back to a safe place to sleep. Cockatoos fly for miles foraging for food each day, so their flock calls must necessarily be quite loud. In general, the farther a particular bird species typically travels, the louder their call. Dusk is the most ear splitting time of day in my house.

          • AnnaPDE

            OMG yes. You really need to visit Brisbane sometime. Around dusk you get screaming trees all around the place — though it’s not the tree screaming, just the dozens (sometimes hundreds) of lorikeets sitting in the tree calling for more to come. And of course more come, and then the screaming gets even louder. Sometimes the flock will decide they need to move, and fly off together. That looks as if the tree suddenly exploded and now a swirling cloud is moving around.
            It is fascinating to watch, but also hard to stand for longer than a minute without hearing protection.

        • demodocus

          sorry, but i can’t help laughing

    • Ozlsn

      The advice we got when we came home from NICU was to have some level of noise going to help transition him to sleep. White noise like dishwasher and washing machine was great for that, although we used the same baby lullaby CD we’d been using in hospital to try and keep it consistent.
      I will say that my son’s first kangaroo care he had fantastic sats, his heart rate settled and he went off to sleep – whether it was the warmth, the smell, the noises that were similar to the womb, touch in general or what I don’t know but it was so good they left him for 30 minutes rather than the planned 10 (he was about 500g at the time, there was a lot of concern about him getting cold.) Kangaroo care is about the only time a baby’s reaction to being held is being monitored though – and it’s generally not happening in a term baby with no issues. Some babies are probably relieved at being able to stretch out and being held interferes with that, some run hot and the additional body warmth is too warm, some want to explore a new environment unfettered. Some just want to eat, sleep and poop and it doesn’t matter to them whether that’s a in pram, a cot, a wrap or a lap. Pretty much all of them would prefer not to be hungry though!!!

    • MaineJen

      The best-behaved my high-maintenance son ever was in public was when we got invited to an outing with my husband’s friends to what ended up being a noisy neighborhood bar. He was only 7 weeks old at the time (all I could think of was that movie scene “You have a baby! In a bar!!”), and judging from his behavior thus far I was sure he’d be a basket case with all the loud music and rowdy conversation.

      Nope! Kid went straight to sleep on my shoulder, and remained sound asleep the whole time we were there. I couldn’t believe it. I had people coming up to me all night saying “Oh what an angel! He’s so good!!” I was like ‘You have no idea…’

      • mabelcruet

        I have friends who are huge rock fans, and when their first child was born, I gave them a CD of lullaby versions of Metallica (its an album called Rockabye Baby). After a few days they decided to try the original heavy metal version of it and it worked far better for putting kiddo to sleep!

        • AnnaPDE

          I’ll have to try what my youngest says to that album – thanks for the incredible find! He’s been hooked on Metallica and Guns n Roses basically since birth, sings “We’re not gonna take it” off by heart, and is now making his first piano steps at not-quite-4 because he wants to play along to Smoke on the Water. This might be a good sleep track – with the originals he just stays awake singing.

          • mabelcruet

            They do versions of other bands too, like Queen. The Metallica one is a bit like elevator musak-you can recognise the tune, but its kind of spacey glockenspiel and harps.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      I got a CD when my daughter was born call transitions 2 music to help baby sleep. It was Womb sounds combined with women’s voices singing wordlessly and some really low key string music. It can with a warning not to listen while driving. Best gift ever. She is 25 and that CD can still send her off to dreamland in nothing flat.

      We took her to lunch the first time when she was about a month old. Noisy as heck restaurant, she was out cold in no time flat.

    • KeeperOfTheBooks

      Ayup, that was Kid #3 in a nutshell: I taught him to take a decently long nap by setting him in the rock-n-play (back when those were okay…) in the kitchen with the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer going. Full tummy, a cuddle, and then all that white noise…his eyes would be at half mast within about fifteen seconds of my setting him down, and he’d be full-on out within ninety seconds. It was like someone hit a sleep button!
      He can also still sleep through screaming arguments between his older siblings within a foot of his head. Third kid, I swear. Probably figured if he didn’t sleep through all that drama, he’d never get any sleep! (No, no concerns about his hearing; he can hear a snack wrapper from three rooms away. 😀 )

  • mabelcruet

    They don’t think that babies are all the same, they simply don’t think about the baby at all except as the means to an end-the outcome of this whole thing is their ‘pregnancy journey’, their ‘birth experience’, their ‘breast feeding journey’. The baby is the way they achieve all that, but is the least important part of it, so frankly I don’t think they even consider the baby as an individual at times. Remember that lactivist creature who came out with the comment that a live baby was one outcome of a pregnancy, but that wasn’t necessarily the most important outcome for some mothers?

    Edit-it wasn’t a lactivist, it was a freebirther lunatic who said a live baby wasn’t the main goal for some people.

    https://www.skepticalob.com/2018/11/freebirther-a-live-baby-is-not-everybodys-goal.html

    • rational thinker

      Yeah I remember that one but then again I do have to give her credit for her rather blunt honesty.

      Those people dont ever realize that their child is an individual and not an carbon copy of the parent. From age 0- 18 that kid is just there to make mom look good.

      • Cristina B

        They definitely don’t think of them as individuals. If they did, they’d allow babies to self-wean instead of starving them back into nursing.