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


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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural mothering advocates assume babies are frightened by life outside the womb when actually they might be fascinated.[/pullquote]

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.