Do you remember how in Star Wars Luke Skywalker achieved victory by using the long forgotten powers of the Force? Well, over the last fifty years, our society has also advanced by returning to ancient wisdom such as getting more exercise, protecting the environment, and eating food grown with less pesticides. Technology is a blessing, but today we are relearning the value of living in harmony with nature; it’s just common sense!
That’s why there’s logic in examining the past to understand ourselves better. Although our clothes and music are contemporary, our biology is clearly prehistoric, and that’s especially true for babies.
In the diagram above, we occupy the tiny bottom right corner, the technological age of man. Yet our babies are far from high-tech. In most respects, they haven’t changed a hair in the past thirty thousand years! That’s why, although most of us would never survive if suddenly sent back to the Stone Age, our infants would feel right at home. Babies expect to be born into a cave family, and they expect us to be as experienced at handling them as our Stone Age cousins were. Unfortunately, most of us are a little rusty—if not completely in the dark—when it comes to those prehistoric parenting tips. What valuable baby-care tricks could you learn if an experienced cave mother lived next door to you?
While we can’t go back in time, we can get an idea of some calming techniques cave moms might have used by looking through a virtual “window” to the past, the study of primitive tribes living around the world today.
Please don’t be fooled by the word primitive. Although it conjures up images of backward people, over the past eighty years research has shown that many so-called primitive peoples possess wisdom of the natural world about which we are ignorant. Some know the medicinal power of rare plants, some know how to find water in the desert—and some even know how to prevent colic!
Past Perfect: Lessons from the !Kung San
For hundreds if not thousands of years, the !Kung San (or African bushmen) have lived in isolation on the plains of the Kalahari Desert. Over the past forty years, however, the !Kung have graciously allowed scientists to observe their lives, including how they care for babies.
I’ve read reports of their newborn care with great interest because !Kung infants hardly ever cry. It’s not that they never cry—it’s that they never CRY! (And I know you understand that distinction.) While !Kung infants get upset as often as our babies do, their parents are so skilled at soothing them that the average fussy bout lasts only sixteen seconds, and more than ninety percent of their crying jags end in under a minute.
What’s their secret? What ancient wisdom do the !Kung know that our culture has forgotten? I believe three facts account for much of this tribe’s stunning success:
• !Kung mothers hold their babies almost twenty-four hours a day.
• !Kung mothers breast-feed their babies around the clock.
• !Kung parents usually respond to their babies’ cries within ten seconds.
!Kung mothers carry their babies all day long in a leather sling and sleep next to them at night. This closeness makes it easy to soothe any fussiness the instant it starts.
In addition to holding and cuddling, the !Kung calm their babies by giving them quick little feedings on the breast—up to one hundred times a day! We in the West might think such snacking would spoil a baby, but that’s not the case. Despite the lavish and immediate attention paid to their crying, !Kung children grow up to be happy, independent, and self-sufficient.
Now, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting we adopt all the !Kung ways; they clearly don’t fit our busy lives. However, I am suggesting that we study these highly successful parents to learn which of their solutions could be easily adopted by Western moms and dads.
I believe the biggest secret the !Kung know is that all their baby soothing methods share a common thread: They imitate the uterus and provide babies the comfort of the fourth trimester.
Compared to our infants, !Kung babies may be deprived of many material possessions, but compared to the !Kung, our babies are deprived of an important “maternal” possession—long hours of being in our arms. While !Kung mothers are with their infants almost nonstop, studies in the United States show that we leave our young babies alone for up to sixteen hours a day. I’m afraid that for many newborns, this abrupt transfer from cozy womb to empty room ends up making them terribly upset.
For the first few months of life, we need to treat our babies the way our ancient ancestors treated theirs thousands of years ago, with the reassuring rhythms of the fourth trimester. In other words, we should no longer mistake our newborns for little horses. Rather, we should treat them like little kangaroos! Kangaroos “know” their babies need a few more months of TLC before they’re ready to get hoppin’, so they welcome them into the pouch the moment they’re born. Likewise, we need to offer our sweet newborns “pouches” of prolonged holding, rocking, shushing, and warmth. If you do this you’ll be amazed. Once you master the skill of imitating the womb, you’ll be able to do exactly what !Kung moms do: settle your baby’s cries in minutes!
Science and the Fourth Trimester:
Research Points the Way … Back
Imitating the womb to calm colic isn’t the only ancient wisdom that has been ignored by our culture. Over the past fifty years, researchers have carefully proved the benefits of another prehistoric skill, breast-feeding, which was rescued from the brink.