Embracing our mammal instincts as parents
Many aspects of parenting and caring for infants has a basis in our evolutionary biology. Contact naps, co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand are practices that have been common in human societies for generations (and continue to be in many cultures), and they are natural and nurturing ways to care for babies.
Contact naps: Babies, like many animals, often benefit from close physical contact with their caregivers. Skin-to-skin contact can promote bonding, regulate a baby's temperature, and provide comfort. Many parents find that carrying their babies in a sling or baby carrier can be a practical way to do this, and still manage other things too. Co-sleeping (safely): Co-sleeping, or sharing a sleeping space with your baby, can work for some families. It can make breastfeeding more convenient and promote nighttime bonding. However, it's crucial to follow safe co-sleeping guidelines to reduce the risk of accidents, such as suffocation. Every family should assess their own situation in order to make an informed decision. Breastfeeding to sleep: Breastfeeding is not only a source of nutrition but also provides comfort and emotional bonding for babies. Breastfeeding to sleep is a common practice and can be beneficial in terms of soothing a baby and encouraging them to sleep.
Bestselling author and paediatrician Carlos González in the excellent parenting bible Kiss Me: How to Raise Your Children with Love writes, ‘Mothers who left their children alone for more than a few minutes soon had no children. Their genes were eliminated by natural selection. By contrast, the genes that compelled mothers to stay with their children were passed down to numerous descendants. You are one of those descendants. Modern women have a natural genetic inclination to stay with their children.’
Babies feel safest when held and kept close to their food source and comfort. As detailed above, if a baby were placed down separately, away from their caregiver during prehistoric times, they would likely be eaten by wild animals. So it's no surprise that babies still have a natural instinct to be close to their parents, safe, warm and fed.
A great way to illustrate this is to look at the 4 categories of mammals (Cache, Follow, Nest and Carry), and how they nurture their young.
Cache mammals are quite mature at birth and are hidden for safety and left by their mothers for up to 12 hours (deer, rabbits etc). Because of this, cache mammals have very fatty milk that fills their babies up and keeps them quiet for long periods while they’re away, and they only need to feed infrequently.
Follow mammals are able to stand and follow their mothers very soon after birth (giraffes, horses etc) and feed more frequently. Their milk has a slightly lower fat content than cache mammals.
Nest mammals are fairly immature when born, they need the warmth and safety of the nest and their siblings to survive and the mother returns frequently to feed (dogs, birds, mice etc), Their milk is lower in fat than cache or follow mammals,hence needing to feed more often.
Carry mammals (kangaroos, monkeys etc) keep their young close, and carry their babies until they are stronger and more physically able to fend for themselves. Their milk contains much lower levels of fat and so their babies need to feed very frequently.
Humans are carry mammals. Our babies are the most immature when born of all mammals. They need the warmth of their caregiver and almost constant feeding (human milk also has the lowest fat and protein levels of all mammilian milk).
Babies are not meant to be put down, or put in a separate room to sleep, this is a relatively modern phenomena, dating back just a couple of hundred years, due to the industrial revolution and the pressure on both parents to work. Throughout much of human history and around the world even today, parents slept near their baby, fed on cue, and nurtured sleep in a responsive way. This supports biologically normative feeding and sleep patterns. Many families co sleep/room share still around the world today - it's perfectly normal!
Popular beliefs about when babies should be ‘sleeping through the night’ are based on studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s on groups of formula-fed babies, plus again, that pressure on parents to return to work and get babies to sleep through the night so they can manage this.
Sleep training is a concept that emerged from changing values, shifting cultural norms, and the beliefs of prominent physicians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has then been further popularised by childcare ‘experts’ and modern parenting books stating babies can or even should be sleeping through by 3 months etc but without any consideration for normal human baby behaviour. It is perfectly normal for babies – especially breastfed babies – to wake and feed at night throughout at least the first year (and sometimes beyond, into the second year of life!)
It's important to recognise that different babies have different needs and temperaments. What works for one family or baby may not work for another. Ultimately, the most important thing is to be responsive to your baby's needs and adapt your parenting practices to what works best for your unique situation, while always prioritising safety. Consulting with your healthcare professionals and trusted sources for guidance can also be helpful in making informed decisions on how to manage your little one's sleep.
For safe sleep guidance, please visit www.lullabytrust.org.uk