As she looked upon Joey it was as if time would slow down just for the two of them— and now for me as well. His gaze with his mother never broke. It was as if he knew the power of his soulful eyes. He knew one look would melt the heart and remind the spirit of that sacred thread of unity and love. -Buffy Owens, “Not One, Not Two: The Mother-Infant Dyad“
Grandmothers will probably hate me for this one. Sigh. Grandmothers are awesome. I love grandmothers. My apologies for what I’m about to say.
I was attending a mixed-age women’s meeting today, and one of the attendees had brought her newborn infant. Upon request, she stood and showed the roomful of women her new baby. Oooohing and ahhhhing commenced. Then this new mom declared her baby’s name, followed by, “And I love to share if anyone wants to hold him,” to the delight of many eager empty-nester arms in the room. Their eagerness was no surprise. It’s a rare woman who can resist a newborn baby. Apparently that newborn smell lights up the same reward centers of women’s brains as chocolate would (see here). I’ll admit… I even really wanted to hold him, and I’ve never met the mother in my life. But I leaned to my stepmom and whispered, “I don’t like to share.” She smiled and said, “I know.”
For a few moments I pondered this. And for a few moments I felt a little bit guilty for not loving to share my babies. But the more I thought about it, the less guilty I felt. The truth is that infants and their mothers are hard-wired to need each other. It is really not entirely different from an addiction. During the initial bonding process, natural opiates reinforce mother-infant interactions (touch, nursing, etc). The more the mother-infant pair interacts in positive ways, the stronger the opiate-enhanced bond becomes. Dr. Linda Folden Palmer explains:
Once a strong opioid bonding has occurred, separation can become emotionally upsetting, and in the infant possibly even physically uncomfortable when opioid levels decrease in the brain, much like the withdrawal symptoms from cocaine or heroin. When opioid levels become low, one might feel like going home to hold the baby or like crying for a parent’s warm embrace, depending on your point of view (Source).
Separation produces more than just an opiate withdrawal:
Studies have shown that when an infant is taken away from his mother he experiences a ‘decreased heart rate, temperature decreases, sleep disturbances and EEG changes’- representing an impairment in the regulating processes of his own little body (Archer, 1992). On separating mother and baby, his immune system weakens. His body literally stops producing as many leukocytes. But when mother rejoins him, he strengthens again (Montagu, 1986). An infant’s body physically needs his mother present to help regulate his own body (Source).
We probably don’t need science to tell us this, but nevertheless research shows us that maternal-infant separation has a profound impact. It is, as Dr. John Krystal has said, a “major physiologic stressor for the infant” (Source). Even so, there is a troubling contradiction in our society: “In animal research, separation from mother is a common way of creating stress in order to study its damaging effects on the developing newborn brain. At the same time, separation of human newborns is common practice” (Source).
Mothers can suffer from separation “withdrawal” as well. When I have a small infant, sometimes it feels almost physically painful to not be with him/her. Watching someone else hold my baby can feel almost like torture. Please don’t misunderstand. Everyone needs a break now and then, and when I do need to shower, eat, rest, or pee, I would much prefer to have a real-life person holding my newborn than a device. Eager, loving helper-arms are wonderful for these times. But otherwise, I want my tiny babies near… one reason I love babywearing. A few weeks ago, in fact, I had a dream in which I found out I was having triplets and cried because I couldn’t figure out how I was going to wear my babies.
Yogic teachings are clear on this subject as well. As I’ve shared before, Yogi Bhajan taught: “He was inside where he was warm, cozy, and well contained. He came out and now he needs that touch, that feeling, that oneness within the nine feet of your aura. . . . When a child is born, you must stick with him for forty days and for two years you and your husband must keep him near the breast and the chest” (Women’s Camp, NM, 1989).
If you haven’t felt “addicted” to your babies, I’m not at all trying to suggest that you are not a good mother. Everyone’s experience will be different. With my first baby, it took a long time for me to bond, and the intensity of my bond with each subsequent baby has been unique. Rather, I’m simply trying to understand myself and my baby-selfishness more clearly. I am also attempting to assuage the guilt of any of my readers who, like me, prefer not to “share” their babies.
If your heart tells you to keep that baby close, do it. If your baby cries when other people hold her (my first newborn knew if I wasn’t holding her and usually objected loudly), you don’t need to subject her to discomfort so that other people can “love on her.” It’s not your job to ensure that your mother-in-law, aunt, or baby-hungry friends get enough snuggle time with your baby. Your job is to follow your heart and meet your baby’s (and your own) needs.
The mother-infant dyad is sacred and should be honored as such.