The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and intestines at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.
William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890
When you bring your soft, dimpled newborn home from the hospital, you may think your peaceful nursery is perfectly suited for his cherubic body and temperament, but that’s not how your baby sees it. To him, it’s a disorienting world—part Las Vegas casino, part dark closet!
His senses are bombarded by new experiences. From outside, he’s assaulted by a jumble of lights, colors, and textures. From inside, he’s flooded with waves of powerful new feelings like gas, hunger, and thirst. Yet, at the same time, the stillness of the room envelops him like a closet, devoid of the rhythms that were his constant comfort and companion for the past nine months. Imagine how strange the quiet of a hospital room must be to your baby after the loud, quadraphonic shhhh of the womb. No wonder babies look around as if they’re thinking, This just can’t be real!
Most infants can deal with these changes without a hitch. However, some babies can’t. They need to be held, rocked, and suckled for large chunks of the day. These sensations duplicate the womb and form the basis of every infant-soothing method ever invented. This fourth-trimester experience calms babies not because they’re spoiled and not because it tricks them into thinking they’re back home, but because it triggers a powerful response inside our babies’ brains that turns off their crying—the calming reflex.
The fourth trimester is the birthday present babies really hope their parents will give them.
A “Womb with a View”: A Parent’s Experience of the Fourth Trimester
When the baby comes out, the true umbilical cord is cut forever … yet the baby is still, in that second, a fetus … just a fetus one second older.
Peter Farb, Humankind
What an unforgettable moment the first time you see and touch your new baby. His sweet smell, open gaze, and downy soft skin capture your heart. But newborns can also be intimidating. Their floppy necks, irregular breathing, and tiny tremors make them seem so helpless.
This vulnerability is why I believe that a fourth-trimester period of imitating the womb is exactly what new babies need.
This need was probably obvious to you when your baby’s sobs melted away the moment he was placed on your chest. Your ears and his cry will now become a virtual umbilical cord, an attachment, like an invisible bungee cord that stretches to allow you to walk around the house—until a sharp yelp yanks you back to his side.
“When Stuart came out of me, he didn’t seem ready to be in the world,” said Mary, a mother in my practice. “He required almost constant holding and rocking to keep him content. My husband, Phil, and I joked that he was like a squishy cupcake that needed to go back in the oven for a little more baking.”
In effect, what Mary and Phil realized was that Stuart needed a few more months of “womb service.” But it’s not so easy being a walking uterus! Bewildered new moms often observe that they’re still in their pajamas at five P.M. Within days of delivery, you’ll discover that it takes all day long to accomplish what your uncomplaining uterus did twenty-four hours a day for the past nine months.
From your baby’s point of view, being in your arms for twelve hours a day is a disappointment, if not a rip-off. If he could talk, your infant would probably state with pouty disdain, “Hey, what’s the big deal? You used to hold me twenty-four hours a day and feed me every single second!”
Unfortunately, many parents in our culture have been convinced that it’s wrong to cuddle their babies so much. They have been misled into believing that their main job is to teach and educate their newborn. They treat their young child more like a brain to train than a spirit they are privileged to nurture. Other cultures consider an infant’s needs differently. In Bali, babies are never allowed to sleep alone and they barely leave the arms of an adult for the first hundred and five days! The parents bury the placenta and nourish the burial spot with daily offerings of rice and vegetables. On the hundred and fifth day, a holy ceremony welcomes babies as new members of the human race; up until that point they still belong to the gods. In this ritual, babies receive their first sip of water, and an egg is rubbed on their arms and legs to give them vitality and strength. Only then are their feet finally allowed to touch Mother Earth.
It’s no coincidence that in cultures like Bali, where colic is virtually nonexistent, parents give babies much more of a fourth-trimester experience than we do.