Q: I’m pregnant with my second child. I struggled a lot postpartum with my first, and I want it to be better this time – not just for the new baby, but I want to be there for my first, too.
A: Struggling postpartum is so common that most people don’t even question why it should be. We just accept the popular image of a disheveled, painfully sleep-deprived mother in a messy room holding a crying baby.
When you read the word “postpartum,” you may even have felt a contraction in your body and immediately associated “depression” with it.
Why should it be this way?
Surely it hasn’t always been, or we’d have died out by now. The story of evolution is that it’s about survival of the species. I know it isn’t a perfect mechanism, but it doesn’t make sense that nature’s design would be for human mothers to be greatly weakened by the demands of early motherhood when their infants are completely dependent on them for their survival.
If it isn’t a biological flaw, it must be a cultural one. What about our culture sets new moms and babies up to struggle in early motherhood? What would a culture that really supported new mothers and babies look like?
The Physiology of Mother-Baby Thriving
What would help a newborn mammal in nature to thrive?
Are you visualizing a gorilla infant clinging to his mother’s back? A marsupial baby in her mother’s pouch? A box of kittens being warmed and fed by their mother, who leaves them only briefly the first days after birth?
What you’re visualizing is continual contact. Mammal babies rely on their mothers for food, warmth and protection, so they are best off when they are in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers.
The effect of continual contact is a physiological process called mutual regulation, which Dr. Sarah J. Buckley, M.D., describes in her book, Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering.Through skin-to-skin contact, Buckley says, mother and baby exchange information and influence one another’s body processes “for ongoing well-being and optimal development.”
Continual contact keeps baby warm and happy. Physiologically, that translates into big gains for your little one. According to Buckley, a stable, warm body temperature and low stress hormones reduce baby’s energy requirements; enhance digestion, healing and growth, and improve blood sugar levels. Furthermore, skin-to-skin contact triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding, which “imprints calm and connection,” as well as making baby easier to soothe.
The advantages of continual contact do not flow only to baby. As the name indicates, the benefits are mutual. Skin-to-skin touch with her baby triggers a cascade of beneficial hormones associated with health and successful mothering. Oxytocin deepens her affective bond and initiates the release of breast milk. Endorphins, the hormones of rest, recovery and bliss, are released with oxytocin. Prolactin not only feeds baby through the production of breast milk, it is the “hormone of surrender,” which helps the mother to relax and tolerate the monotony of newborn care.
Continual contact, then, is the physiological foundation for mother-baby thriving. Not only does it promote health and healing, it feels good. So what gets in the way?
How Modern Western Culture Undermines Mother-Baby Thriving
In the ways that we do not fully support continual contact, we undermine mother-baby thriving.
Our cultural values of independence and control particularly come between mothers and their infants. When we talk about a mother “bouncing back” after baby and believe that holding “spoils” the baby, we insert independence where it doesn’t belong and raise a barrier to continual contact. When we encourage a mother to put her infant on a convenient feeding and sleeping schedule, particularly when she has to ignore her baby’s cries to do so, we insert control where it does not belong and raise a barrier to continual contact.
Independence and control also work against a mother when it comes to asking for and receiving help in the early days and weeks after birth. Independence tells her she should be able to do everything on her own; if she cannot, she feels ashamed. Control tells her she should not allow others to see her when she’s a mess. The less help she has, the more likely she is to put baby down so she can get things done, inadvertently depriving both herself and baby of the ample rewards of mutual regulation.
Furthermore, status in the West is conferred by wealth and power, and motherhood generates neither. In the US particularly, the lack of a paid parental leave policy, as well as the fact that childcare workers are paid little and considered unskilled, telegraphs to mothers that that work is not important. Believing, even just a little, that mothering doesn’t matter can create maternal ambivalence that can come between her and her baby.
Ample practical assistance and emotional support enable a new mother and her baby to enjoy continual contact. These create the space and the state of mind that allow her to slow down and concern herself only – for a while – with her baby and their adjustment to their new life together.
Buckley, Sarah J., M.D. Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices.” New York: Celestial Arts, 2009. Print.