Why is it that when our baby can’t sleep and all they do is cry, no matter what we have done, our emotions go frantic? Is it all about love, or is it something more?
I have been thinking about this lately, because I am a firm believer in the bilateral relationship between mother and infant. You see, a bilateral relationship is one where both sides are equally affecting of and effected by each other. They impact one another equally.
One obvious aspect of the bilateral nature of the mother/infant relationship is that of breastfeeding. At a biological level, the baby passes pathogens in to the mothers system via the breast when breastfeeding. The nipple acts, theoretically, as a sort of two-way valve where by milk leaves her breasts, but some of the baby’s saliva goes in, which is very important (Sanders, 2015). This saliva, or “backwash,” carries information to the mothers body about the health of her infant and will alter the components or “ingredients” in her breast milk to meet the baby’s physiological needs. One mother even posted a picture of her expressed breastmilk as it had changed colour, after her baby became sick, and she believed it was due to this very cause; that the number of antibodies in the breastmilk increased to assist baby in recovering. Breastfeeding is bilateral at a physiological level.
Another example is that of Microchimerism where by cells from the baby, whilst a woman is pregnant, are transferred to her system and can stay there for decades after giving birth. However the reverse also occurs; whereby a small number of the mother’s cells exist within her children well into adulthood. The effects of this are hypothesised and varied, but can be read about in numerous places, but again it is clear that this is also another bilateral aspect of the mother/infant relationship.
There is no doubt that a mother and baby are linked, it is obvious, but how deep and impacting this link? Well that is another topic.
So we come to an emotional link. The physical links are much easier to understand and study, and an emotional link of “love” is likewise obvious, but I propose that the bond is much deeper than that.
Think for a moment, on those times where your baby has been crying and refusing to sleep. You have met all possible physical needs, and you know they aren’t sick, and yet they continue to cry. You try everything, and nothing seems to work, and a sense of anxiousness and powerlessness comes over you.
Yes it is easy to say that that is because it is a mothers role to ensure survival, and meet all of her baby’s need; but all needs are met. So why the emotional reaction?
When looking at the animal kingdom, we can see that the same level of psychological/emotional distress is not experienced by mother’s whose baby’s do not have an immediate need. They meet the need and they are done, even when their baby’s are still calling out for a need there is no great evidence of distress on the mothers part. A mother bird simply gets food and brings it back, a mother lioness just lays and waits for her cubs to figure out the breastfeeding thing on their own, large mammal mothers give their baby’s some solid kicks to get them going after birth; there is no second guessing – just instinct.
So is it that we aren’t following our instinct?
Yes and no.
I believe that the reason for such a large reaction is because it is necessary for mum to grow.
Think back to those moments of powerlessness, or when you are experiencing it next time, and have a think if it reminds you of anything. Perhaps of a time when you were young and helpless and no one came to your aid, or a time where you felt there was a huge expectation for you to meet and you couldn’t do it, or something else entirely.
It isn’t a process where by the goal is to make you feel overwhelmed by passed experiences, but an opportunity for healing.
You see, one reason that babies will continue to cry, despite the fact that all physical needs have been met (including being held) and they aren’t sick, is due to an accumulation of stress (Solter, 2011), which is evident in the chemical composition of emotionally induced tears (Frey, W.H., 1985), and believed to be an evolutionary mechanism to return to emotional health and balance (homeostasis). The way we do this, according to Solter, is through maintaining empathic presence with our baby and listening to their cries, just like we would for a friend. There is no fixing required; because nothing is broken, there is no physical need to be met; as all have been, there is no distraction require; because that misses the point. Only presence will allow healing, and for our baby to grow in emotional health and regulation.
Is it then too far fetched, when we look at all other aspects of the mother/infant bond, to believe that those moments not only provide our baby’s with an opportunity to self-regulate and heal, but us too? And why not father and infant also? I believe that the relationship of father/baby is just as beautiful and complex, but often overlooked. I believe that this is just as true for fatherhood as motherhood.
However, I wonder if our instincts have been second guessed for so long that we have forgotten this, and we have not been able to act upon those notions because of that, or I wonder if it is that we simply weren’t ever shown or experienced that kind of listening for such a long time that the ability was lost. Because what is instinct if not acting in the way we were shown? And if so, then instincts can change. After all, there is a whole field of science dedicated to that area (epigenetics). If instincts change or can be forgotten, especially when the environment forces too great a focus on survival, then it is easy for those “higher” level instincts to be lost or to go un-nurtured. However it is also likely, with the right information and support, that those instincts can be re-discovered and re-taught.
Once I realise the truth of this, of listening, listening to my sons big feelings became an honour. I met all other needs, and made sure to diminish any risk of stress as much as possible, but when he needed to share with me, I was there. It was hard, because I had to process (and continue to process) my own feelings, but it is now an instinct – check for all physical needs, check again, and then maybe again, and then listen. Just be present.
Life is more beautifully and deeply connected than we have ever fathomed, and I believe that parenting in key in revolutionising our understanding of ourselves, and the world we live in, so maybe it really is all about love; but love is just as much about how we love and connect with ourselves as it is about how we love and connect with others.
My son has taken me further into my own soul than I have ever been, or ever thought possible, and I could not do it without the opportunity to be made aware and listen to my own feelings, if I did not have the opportunity to listen to his. I had to reconcile my own pain, in order to support him through his, because what effects me will effect him; and vice-versa. Therefore I have a responsibility to take care of myself and to connect with myself, if I am to support him in his journey in learning to do the same.
I guess it really is all about love.
Frey, W. H. (1985). Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Michigan: Winston Press.
Sanders, L. (2015, September 15). Backwash from nursing babies may trigger infection fighters. Retrieved from Science News: https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/growth-curve/backwash-nursing-babies-may-trigger-infection-fighters
Solter, A. (2011). The Aware Baby (Revised ed.). California: Shining Star Press.