What is happening for the Baby:
Baby is maximally dependent- Newborns are essentially in what is known as the “4th trimester." The belief is that a newborn is born before it is truly ready to function on its own in the outside world. Babies should go from growing on the inside of mother to growing on the outside of mother, to finish developing and to ease this transition to the outside world. Imagine the infant’s experience in utero: it was dark and warm, he could hear mother’s rhythmic heartbeat, her almost constant movement rocked him, and baby was continuously fed through the umbilical cord. Now, he is in a bright, cold, and strange new world, and he doesn’t know when his next feeding will occur (Ockwell-Smith 2016). New parents often mistakenly believe they will feed the baby and lay it down to sleep for hours. They soon realize, however, that once the baby is placed alone on the cold, crib surface, they wake up. Yet, when returned to mom's arms, the baby will sleep for a good while. On mom’s chest is the baby’s secure place. He feels her warmth, smells her milk, hears her heartbeat and feels safe and content. Knowing this ahead of time and accepting this as normal will prepare the mother to feel she is precisely where she needs to be as she lounges comfortably in bed with her newborn. However, if she had the erroneous idea that she would be doing things around the house while her baby slept, she may feel trapped beneath a baby with an overwhelming feeling about all that isn’t getting done. But, when she sits and holds her newborn, she can know she is doing exactly what needs to be done for him and herself. This expectation management for the mother and her support group is thus critical to a healthy and happy transition from pregnancy to parenthood.
Babies have needs, and it is a mother’s job to meet them
Attachment Theory tenets state that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development.
In his blog, Good Enough Caring, Charles Sharpe analyzes the works of psychologist, John Bowlby and pediatrician, Donald WInnicott.
One might be surprised to learn that 70% of a newborn’s brain growth occurs outside of the womb. Brain development in newborns is influenced by the child’s physical and emotional environment. Babies’ behaviors will often reflect whether or not their needs are being met. Crying is often a signal that the baby is hungry, uncomfortable in a wet diaper, or desiring their mother’s warmth. A mother that is anticipating what the baby needs and providing it promptly will likely notice a marked decrease in crying or other disturbances. According to Bowlby, the securely attached infant feels that its caregiver is accessible and responsive to him when needed, while the anxiously attached infant cannot assume that his caregiver will be responsive and so he adopts strategies to circumvent the perceived unresponsiveness. Such a strategy may result in a baby denying the emotional tie with a caregiver, or it may be manifested by the baby’s need to amplify their signs of distress in order to ensure he will be heard.
Spending time with your baby helps you tune into his needs. Winnicott always argued that mothers knew better about the needs of their babies than did experts. He suggests that there were, “very subtle things that the mother knows intuitively and without any intellectual appreciation of what is happening and which she can only arrive at by being left alone and given full responsibility. Keeping a baby next to his mother will make its needs obvious to her and allow her to respond quickly.
Numerous products are on the market whose purpose essentially is to replace the comforting act of holding one's baby. Sarah Ockwell- Smith, parenting expert and author of The Gentle Parenting book, sums it up perfectly when she discusses how we spend so much money on items designed to mimic what babies need so we can put them down. We swaddle them because it makes them feel safe and secure like they were in the womb. We buy swings and devices to rock, swing and sway baby to satisfy their need for movement that they were accustomed to in utero. We buy heartbeat teddies, so the baby hears the heartbeat that is so familiar to them. Although it is sometimes unavoidable to place the baby in a crib in order for the mother to execute a certain task, these items cannot replace the natural act of mothering and can add to the infant's uncertainty, if overused.
There appears to be a school of thought that holding the baby too much can “spoil” the child. Many studies, however, have proven that holding one’s baby is not harmful in the least and is actually a vital part of caring for babies in the early days, with long-term positive impacts on health and development. Newborns operate on instincts and reflexes. Their thinking is not advanced enough to consider manipulation of mother’s emotions. If they cry, it is because they have a need and are trying to communicate that to their mother. If they suck on their hands as a hunger cue, they expect the caregiver to read that cue and feed them.
Babies need breast milk on demand
The establishment and maintenance of breast milk is of significant importance in postpartum care. Breast milk provides optimal nutrition for newborn infants, protects them against infection and allergies, and promotes mother-infant bonding. Babies should be near their mothers, and unrestricted breastfeeding is encouraged. A baby cannot be over-fed on breast milk. When the child is no longer hungry, it will stop nursing.
Babies need skin to skin contact
There are now a multitude of studies that show that mothers and babies should be together, skin to skin (baby naked, not dressed or wrapped in a blanket), immediately after birth and beyond. When babies are skin to skin, the baby is happier, the baby's temperature is more stable and more normal, the baby's heart and breathing rates are more stable and normal, and the baby's blood sugar is more elevated, according to a study by Dr. Nathalie Maitre (Wisner 2017). Also, skin to skin contact allows the baby to be colonized by the same bacteria as the mother which, along with breastfeeding, is critically important for the prevention of allergic disease. Skin to skin contact leads to improved neurodevelopment, higher IQ, and lower rates of aggression. Skin to skin has also been shown to increase breastfeeding success and can even make certain medical procedures less painful for infants (such as nursing while the infant receives its immunization).
Dr. Maitre states that intentional supportive touch is critical to babies’ developing brains. “For infants, touch is one of the first senses that develops, before hearing and sight, therefore making it the building block in early infancy communication. All new moms and dads out there can breathe a giant sigh of relief- ignore everything you’ve ever heard about spoiling a baby with attention and cuddles. There’s just no way to hold a baby too much.”
Babies mental health is at stake
The foundation of health is laid in the first weeks of a baby’s life. Donald Winnicott proposed that the happiness and future satisfaction of the human race depends ultimately not so much on external political issues, but on something far closer to home: the way parents bring up their children. All the sicknesses of humanity were, in his view, in essence, consequences of a failure of parental provision. Fascism, delinquency, rage, misogyny, alcoholism, these were only the symptoms of poor childhoods that the collective would have to pay for. He believed the road to a better society begins in the nursery.
Winnicott points out an infant’s psychologically fragility. It doesn’t understand itself, it doesn’t know where it is, it is struggling to stay alive, it has no way of grasping when the next feeding will come, and it can’t communicate with others. It is an undifferentiated, unindividuated mass of competing drives. The early months are hence an immense struggle. Winnicott’s work never loses sight of this, and he therefore repeatedly asserts that it is those around the infant who have to ‘adapt’ so as to do everything to interpret the child’s needs and not impose demands for which the child is not ready.
‘The foundation of the health of the human being is laid by you in the baby's first weeks and months. This thought should help when you feel strange at the temporary loss of your interest in world affairs. It is not surprising. You are engaged in founding the mental health of the next generation.' Winnicott called parenting: ‘the only real basis for a healthy society and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country's social system.'
In his descriptions of what parents should do for their children, Winnicott was in effect referring to a term which he rarely mentioned directly: love. We often imagine love to be about a magical intuitive “connection” with someone. But, in Winnicott’s writings, we get a different picture. Proper infant caregiving is a surrender of the ego, a putting aside of one’s own needs and assumptions, for the sake of close, attentive listening to another, whose mystery one respects, along with a commitment not to get offended, not to retaliate, when something ‘bad’ emerges, as it often does when one is close to someone, child or adult. (The Philosopher’s Mail)
A new mother’s needs and a new baby’s needs are in perfect sync. If she will slow down, take care of herself and respond to her baby’s needs, they both will be happier and healthier in the postpartum period.