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26 June 2017

Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth

Written by Published in Health & Beauty
Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth ┬ęPicture by Photoduet

New research in neurobiology reveals that birthing and infant rearing practices we consider normal may precipitate mental health issues in later life, contributing to destructive and aggressive behaviour. By abandoning an element of collaboration, we may have left behind methods which once produced stronger people who respected each other and the planet

The emphasis on competition in our culture is in stark contrast with the cooperation which predominates in the natural world and in human social history. The institution of the nuclear family and monogamy is comparatively recent. For most of human existence, people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers (SBHG) with a very different culture and values. Studies of contemporary SBHGs, quoted in Darcia Narvaez’ book Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, evolution, culture, and wisdom, show generosity, sharing, egalitarianism, living cooperatively and strikingly little aggression.

Sharing childcare means that babies are in constant contact with carers, their needs met almost instantaneously. Not that we need to turn the clock back and live in small groups of hunter gatherers; but perhaps we can learn from them

While the physical health of our baby has now become the top priority, little attention has been paid to the baby’s experience at or immediately after birth. As a general rule, we have little access to memories of our birth or infancy till we reach the age of about two. Our early personal experience is lost in the mists of time. But intuitive attempts by psychoanalysts to connect with those early experiences are now supported by evidence from neurobiology.

Those first few minutes, hours or weeks of life are crucial in determining our later capacity to cope with loss or trauma. If we are not given the care we need, it can affect our neurobiological development, particularly of the vagus nerve, which is central to proper functioning as a human being.

Narvaez cites seven conditions for a satisfactory birth and infancy, which, if fostered in our own culture, could increase mental health and decrease aggressive tendencies and polarised thinking stemming from lack of connection to self, to other and to nature:

  • soothing perinatal experiences;
  • responsivenes to the needs of the infant and prevention of distress;
  • extensive touch and physical presence;
  • extensive infant initiated breastfeeding;
  • a community of warm, responsive caregivers;
  • a positive climate and social support; and
  • creative free play with companions of multiple ages

How many of us received the loving warmth of skin-to-skin contact that could help us feel safe in those first few hours? My experience of having my first child in hospital was of the babies being herded into a sterilised nursery that mothers were forbidden to enter, in order to ‘give mother a rest’, while baby cried himself to sleep. Quite probably many of us were left as babies to cry ourselves to sleep, and consequently we may tend to discount the screams of young babies as ‘exercising their lungs’ in order to hide the discomfort it arouses. It is not hard to imagine what that must have felt like; the stress it caused to both mother and baby.

In the clinical treatment of children and adults, psychoanalytic theory posits an early experience of ‘falling apart’ – the ‘nameless dread’, the terror of the unknown which occurs at a time when the helpless infant has few resources to cope with experiences of being left alone in a world that does not respond to its cries. These experiences may initially be suppressed using ‘splitting’ as a way to hold onto the good and separate out the bad experiences as the infant tries to protect herself. This ‘schizoid mechanism’ is described in Melanie Klein’s Envy and Gratitude as a necessary polarisation, helpful in maintaining good internal figures until the infant is ready to see good and bad as coexisting in one relationship (the ‘depressive position’). Early trauma or stress can delay this natural urge towards integration of the whole until later life, when these feelings may begin to break through into consciousness as anxiety or manic depressive episodes.

At any rate, there comes a time when, it seems, we have to reintegrate these expelled parts of ourselves and reclaim lost pieces, welcoming back those characteristics we would rather see in other people than in ourselves. This appears also to be the nature of the maturational need of humanity at this time

After a relationship break-up in my fifties, I became trapped in a deep, dark hole with no way out, an experience which lasted for about six months before I was able to face the unwanted feelings and reclaim them as mine, becoming in the process a richer, more whole person. Fortunately, my sister allowed me to sit in her garden while this process worked itself out. Not many have such support. The key to unlocking that causal chain, described by Alice Miller in her book The Truth Will Set You Free, is to get in touch with those feelings which were stored in mind and body at a time when we had no resources to deal with them.

The resistance to depressive feelings, aided by a whole range of pharmaceuticals recommended by the medical profession, can delay the recovery of early feelings of helpless terror and rage, which instead get played out towards the ‘other’, re-enacting the polarisation, previously useful, which now sees strangers as enemies with whom it is impossible to communicate, and justifying the need for bigger and more powerful bombs to keep ourselves safe.

In order to heal our world, we need to heal our own infancy, and rediscover the connections to our most basic needs for comfort and security. Welcoming newborns into the world may require a collaborative society, one which shares childcare and supports early experiences in a harmonious environment.

 

References:
- Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth, title taken from a 2016 Findhorn Conference
- Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, evolution, culture, and wisdom, Darcia Narvaez 2014
- Envy and Gratitude, Melanie Klein, 1957
- The Truth Will Set You Free, Alice Miller 2001
- Birth into Being, Elena Tonetti

 

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