After years existing in the happy land of child development theory, as new parents, my wife and I have had the opportunity to bridge theory with practice. As an aside, we much prefer the eloquence, clarity, and cleanliness of theory to the nastiness of practice. Nevertheless, practice we must, since our baby, First Born, does not take to theory –well, not entirely, but after he reads this missive, we will see…
Ashley Montague in his now classic book Prenatal Influences termed the period from birth to nine months of age, the period of “extra-uterine gestation”. He called it that because the infant during this time has not yet met certain minimum requirements for self-sufficient biological self-regulation, immune response, and physiological adaptive capacity.
As new parents, we had to deal with practice, and Montague’s insight translates into the new born infant’s basic cycle of existence: “Eat, sleep, pee, poop”. The basic cycle exists with permutations, sometimes, “eat, poop, pee, sleep” and sometimes, “sleep, poop, eat, pee” and so on. This is basic cycle, but the basic cycle has more fine tuned nuances to which every new parent is attuned. An example of an extended cycle consists of “eat, spit-up, burp, sleep, fuss, fart, pee, poop”.
An extended cycle is sometimes interrupted by periods of what infant observers call “alert activity”. In practice these are the periods of reprieve from the cycle of infant existence where new parents find reinforcement for procreation:
Father: “My heavens, he’s looking at me.”
Mother: “No, he’s not. He’s looking at the wall cornice.”
Father: “What do you think is so interesting about the wall cornice?”
Mother: “I don’t know, but he sure is cute. Look at that far away look in his eye.”
Father: “He’s pooping.”
In our third week of initiatory parenthood, the great enemy of romantic intoxication, gastric distress, interrupted new parent ecstasy. Gastric distress is no picnic. After reading comments on the Internet, I became convinced that almost all babies have it at some time, and that it exists on a continuum from spitting-up to full-fledged colic. Colic describes the baby from hell. This is the baby that seemingly no matter what the parent does or does not do, the rascal cries on.
When a baby has gastric distress, parental fantasies of omnipotence come crashing down. My first research experience with parents of colicky babies occurred during prehistory when I was research director at the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois. I had designed a mechanical contraption that rocked babies to discern the effects of motion upon infant state. So what if nearly every mother on the face of the earth could have informed me what happens when a baby is rocked? Somehow when something is done in a laboratory under standard conditions, it has more authority. My mechanical contraption was not your usual rocker. This one jived with a lateral displacement of six inches and a maximum speed of 120 gyrations per minute. That’s like being on the sort of ride at an amusement park where you lose the hot dog and fries you had for lunch. Fortunately for my equipment, the little critters subjected to my rocker box experiment had not been fed for two hours. This fact, coupled with a Midwestern heat wave where the temperature was 90 degrees, insured that every baby put onto the flat bed box of my contraption was crying lustily. In spite of these unfavorable conditions almost every baby rocked at high speed fell asleep within 30 seconds, except two babies. They just cried on. When I interviewed the moms, one told me he was the baby from hell, and the other mom thought she was a bad parent. She really wasn’t a bad parent at all, she was a very conscientious parent, but her baby would not quiet no matter what she did.
Fortunately, most parents, including us, have babies that quiet when subject to motion. After I had published two “rocker box” studies, I received an article from a researcher, WA Mason, who published in the animal behavior literature. Child development psychologists never read, or almost never read, animal behavior literature, so I probably would have been unacquainted with his research had I not published my rocker box studies –fortunately he was not so pedestrian and read outside his specialty.
Mason made a remarkable discovery, but the discovery seemed incompatible with the dominant scientific and cultural paradigm that reined in child psychology at the time. Mason worked in the laboratory tradition of Harry Harlow. Almost every one who has taken an undergraduate course in psychology knows Harlow’s research. Harlow designed an experiment where baby monkeys were deprived of their natural mothers. In one condition a baby monkey grew up with a wire mother with an attached bottle and, in another condition, a terry cloth covered wire mother with no bottle. Students usually remember that if a baby monkey were frightened, he sought out comfort from a terry cloth covered mother rather than from a wire mother, and hence a baby monkey has a primary need for “contact comfort”. What many students did not know about these monkeys is that when they grew up, they were social and emotional screwballs. For example, female monkeys deprived of biological mothers would abandon or attack her biological infant with sometimes-fatal consequences. Therefore, Harlow’s research seemed to demonstrate that infancy is a critical period for the development of later parental and social skills. The main thrust of Harlow’s research is undoubtedly true, but Mason’s research raised critical questions about easy generalization from social experience to later development.
Mason replicated Harlow’s research with a difference. Mason observed that real monkey mothers move about with their infants clinging to their bodies. Baby monkeys experience constantly variable kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory input –even in sleep. “Social” stimulation is confounded with physical stimulation. To disentangle the contribution of social and physical stimuli to development, Mason provided monkey infants with a terry cloth “mother” that was an armature, not even vaguely shaped like Harlow’s wire monkey mother. Mason suspended the armature from the top of the infant monkey’s cage to rotate 360 degrees. The armature was powered to move continuously as the infant clung to the terry cloth. During infancy the baby monkeys did not have the opportunity to interact either with adult monkeys or peers. In remarkable contrast to Harlow’s goof balls, Mason’s monkeys did not display obvious social deficits. During their juvenile period, Mason’s monkeys played with their peers and displayed a healthy repertoire of monkey behavior.
What seemed to make the difference between Harlow’s and Mason’s monkeys was the experience of kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory stimulation due to mechanical, not social stimulation. Mason’s research did not receive the accolades or textbook references in introductory psychology texts that Harlow’s research received because at the time no one seemed to have a good explanation why such a simple intervention as passive movement would have such far-reaching consequences.
My appreciation of Mason’s work has greatly increased, some years after he sent me the article, because of two events, my new passion for neuroscience and First Born’s response to movement. A few months before First Born’s birth, I began to read the developmental neurological literature. I found what most neuroscientists have known for at least a decade and what many developmental psychologists still don’t know, and that is that about 25 to 50% of the infant’s neurons are “pruned” during the last trimester and first months of life. That’s a lot of pruning and if the pruning went on at that rate to the end of the second year of life, the average baby would have no neurons left at all –probably exactly what the some business enterprises desire for our children.
The neuronal pruning that goes on during these early months occurs in part as a response to stimulation. Neuronal pathways that are stimulated appear to conserve neurons that are part of those pathways. Neurons that are “off-line” are likely to die off. Kinesthetic, vestibular, and variable sensory experiences associated with movement promote conservation and development of neural pathways or circuits. In the absence of movement, these neural pathways are not strengthened –and are subject to neural pruning (die-off).
The skeptics among you may say that’s well and good for monkeys, but we humans are not monkeys. We are made for higher things like television and the Internet. Movement is not such an essential condition of our development as it is for monkeys. Some of you, even skeptics, may have read Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and will concede that human kind spent a considerable portion of human history as hunter-gatherers. During this lengthy time, perhaps forty-five times the span of recorded history, human kind were responsible for the care and sustenance of infants. Hunter- gatherers could not rely upon the work of a single member of the household to provide food, shelter, and supplies. Hunter-gatherers needed to move to seek new food supplies, perhaps only a valley away, but movement was a survival necessity.
Unlike monkeys who have fur, human kind is relatively hairless. Unlike monkey babies who cling to their mother’s fur, human infants have only a vestigial clinging reflex. At the onset of human history to care for babies, hunter-gatherers had to develop means to carry babies as parents moved from one place to another and engaged in one chore after another. Babies were carried in slings, baskets, or cradleboards, but always carried. Local materials, technology, and tradition determined how they were carried, but from the beginning of human existence, babies were subject to the kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory experiences associated with passive movement.
Only in relatively recent human history has the human infant been subject to relatively stationary conditions for prolonged periods during the first months of life. Experimental research since the hey-day of deprivation research in the 1960s, demonstrated the importance of sensory stimulation. The preponderance of this research focused upon external sensory stimulation, vision and audition, and motor practice. This research was translated from the laboratory into practice by stress upon visual, auditory, and to a lesser degree, motor activity. Visual and auditory modalities were stressed because grant money went to educators, and educators think the only senses worthy of cultivation are vision, audition, and fine motor coordination. Conspicuously absent from the child development recommendations were kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory experiences associated with passive movement.
Anyone who visits toy stores to examine toys for infants might be appalled at how toy companies have exploited sensory-motor research. Toy companies no longer pass off their wares as transient junk intended to relief parents of hard earned money, but programmed educational devices. Fisher-Price makes a line of toys for infants that ought to make a parent gag. In the Fisher-Price world from birth to eighteen months, the infant is subjected to a blizzard of off-tune noises, advertised as music, flashing lights, and garish colors. Presumably the cacophony is supposed to enrich the infant’s environment. Child development research long has suggested that such toys are worse than nothing. For example, Becker showed that infants gurgle and coo at moving mobiles, and simultaneously decrease in responsiveness to people. The best “toys” are those that permit exploration and offer a variety of textures, surfaces, and forms –Sassy makes a very decent line of products that follow these guidelines.
In any case, the very young infant from birth to two months is relatively uninterested in Fisher-Price or Sassy toys. The very young infant has poor motor coordination and has trouble holding up his head, sitting up, or even rolling over. But the very young infant is very, very good at experience of passive movement.
During the week after a shower that we had one month before First Born was born, we counted four baby carriers that we had received as gifts. “Our cup runneth over,” I thought, “We have baby carriers for baby carriers.” Little did I realize how essential the baby carriers were for First Born’s and our happiness.
First Born’s gastric distress and associated misery was addressed by a variety of measures. First, we elevated his head above his stomach while feeding; second, we burped him three or more times during the feeding; third, we sat him up to at least a sixty-degree angle up to fifteen minutes after each feeding. These measures produced tangible results, but sometimes First Born continued to be cranky for no good reason.
Parent: “Come on First Born, we’ve fed you, we changed your diaper, we checked your temperature and bed clothes.”
First Born: “Whaaaaa.”
Parent:” We played with you an hour. We are exhausted. We need to go to sleep. Can’t we play later?”
First Born: “Whaaaa.”
Parent: “Can’t you be reasonable?”
First Born: “Whaaaa.”
Then in the third week, we discovered the use of Baby Bjorn, a contemporary equivalent of the traditional sling, basket, or cradleboard. Baby Bjorn is well made and conceived to make the business of carrying the young infant relatively easy and risk free. When we place First Born in this carrier and move about, First Born changes demeanor: If he is cranky, he becomes quiet and observant, and within five to ten minutes, he falls into a deep slumber. If he is alert, he remains wakeful for up to twenty minutes before he falls asleep. During periods of alert activity not in the carrier, he sustains his good mood and quiet observation for long periods.
Since we have used the carrier, we have a happy baby with more predictable sleep cycles and little fussiness. First Born experiences kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory stimulation from the passive experience of his parent’s movement. The sensory stimulation includes heat from the parent’s body, pressure and gentle massage during movement, and, in quiet moments, the sound and feel of the parent’s heart beat. At the same time, his parent’s movement requires his postural and homeostatic adaptation.
First Born shares what babies experienced from ancient times in the primordial environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Like Mason’s monkeys, he experiences dynamic movement as part of his daily regime. Neural paths that otherwise would have been under-activated or even unactivated receive stimulation. These pathways likely facilitate the development of homeostatic and postural self-regulation. That’s why his daily adventure in the carrier reduces fussiness. The same circuits that support current homeostasis ought to lay the groundwork for a similar role in the future.
According to a current theory of colic, digestive dysregulation of the colicky baby likely represents an immaturity of homeostasis. Movement promotes the development of neural pathways. Crying is an adaptive behavior and the baby’s protests may reflect his felt need for movement.
Parents adapt differently to the colicky cry. The parent who considered her colicky baby the baby from hell refused to pick him up when he cried. The parent who felt responsible for the baby’s malaise constantly picked her up, but then set her down almost as quickly.
In the uterus the fetus is subject to substantial kinesthetic, vestibular, and deep pressure stimulation from active and passive movement. During First Born’s ultrasound at 15 weeks, the technician had to constantly readjust the focus because First Born was an underwater acrobat who moved from one place in the pond to another. Later in pregnancy when the room to frolic is reduced, the fetus experiences movement and pressure from his mother’s activity. Every baby has a “motion quotient”. After the uterine developmental experience, thrust into immobility is discontinuous.
Does the colicky cry call forth the desired parental behavior that provides, however transiently, passively experienced movement? Is the colicky cry a form of self-stimulation that provides some of the kinesthetic, vestibular, and sensory stimulation that promotes the development of circuits that sustain later self-regulation?
From birth to one month, First Born’s cycle has been enhanced to “eat, spit-up, burp, carry about, sleep, observe, fuss, fart, pee, poop. “This is development and his parents are proud. Who said a theoretician can’t be practical?
Mason, W.A. & Berkson, G. (1975) Effects of maternal mobility on the development of rocking and other behaviors in rhesus monkeys: A study with artificial mothers. Developmental Psychobiology, 8, 197-211.
van den Daele, L.D. (1970) Modification of infant state by treatment in a rockerbox. Journal of Psychology, 74, 161-165.
van den Daele, L.D. (1971) Infant reactivity to redundant proprioceptive and auditory stimulations: A twin study. Journal of Psychology, 78, 269-276.