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REVIEW: Baby Meets World, by Nicholas Day
Baby Meets World: Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle: A Journey Through Infancy, Nicholas Day (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).
All you really need to know about me, demographically, is that a couple of times a year someone I know will say, “Hey, we’re expecting our first baby! What books should we read?”
There are, approximately, an infinite number of books aimed at parents expecting their first child — especially anxious, bookish members of the professional-managerial class who haven’t been around an actual infant since their sole younger sibling was born1 — but there are only two you should read. The first and most important is Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, a book so vital to parental wellbeing that I once received an expensive Harry & David gift basket merely for a secondhand recommendation. The other is Baby Meets World, a fairly obscure text with a double doctrine: on the surface, an investigation of infant development; beneath, the secret teaching that it doesn’t really matter.
American parents obsess about our babies. Breast or bottle, and if bottle then are you pumping or feeding formula? Sleeping in your bed or in a crib, in your room or their own, will you let them cry (and if so how much) or will you go to them every time? Disposable diapers, cloth diapers, elimination communication? Spoon-fed purees or baby-led weaning? Stroller or babywearing? And on and on, replete with warnings of the terrible doom to which you consign your innocent child if you make the wrong choice (allergies! obesity! neurosis! not getting into Harvard!) until you begin to wonder how two thousand generations of illiterate teenagers could ever have managed to produce us.
Infancy is the only human universal. Sure, you can find a list out there that claims things like “right-handedness as population norm,” but hand preference doesn’t develop until eighteen months or so. Do you know how many babies, historically, didn’t make it to eighteen months? (Well, I don’t either, because I try to avoid statistics that are going to depress me, but it’s a lot.) But all of us, from Winston Churchill to Attila the Hun to the tiny, fragile remains of Mesolithic newborn laid to rest in a Ligurian cave, have been babies.2 And yet, despite this universal experience, humans have wildly different beliefs and practices when it comes to our babies. The Western analytical lens, with its charts and its milestones, its emphases on the infant’s cognitive skills and developing autonomy, is not the only way to look at a baby (although it does have some distinct advantages), and Baby Meets World is, in part, an introduction to some other ways of looking. But Nicholas Day is one of us — an anxious, bookish, analytical member of the PMC’s highest caste (he’s a journalist who wrote for Slate and the Atlantic; his wife is a law professor)3 — so it’s also full of the latest science, circa 2013, and filtered through the lens of Day’s own first child.
The science of infancy is plenty interesting, and Day’s lyrical musings on what we now (think we) know about babies casts an aura of wonder over the otherwise mind-numbing stage known as the “slugoid” phase in the Psmith household. But the best part of the book is the history and ethnography,4 because it turns out that those choices that so obsess American parents occupy a tiny, tiny subset of the vast possibility space of infant care. Take the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, who give their infants enemas twice a day from the time the umbilical cord falls off. The Beng consider defecation not only physically but morally unclean, and older children and adults often give themselves enemas immediately before a bath to ensure that they can thoroughly and properly cleaned. But Beng mothers spend their days in agricultural labor, often at some distance from the village, and leave their babies to be carried around — on the back, skin to skin, without a diaper — by young girls who compete over the “prettiest” babies. (They apparently don’t mind being peed on.) According to Alma Gottlieb, the University of Illinois anthropologist who literally wrote the book on Beng babies, mothers report having no trouble training their newborns to evacuate their bowels only at bathtime by two to four months old. We, who have diapers, a merely practical distaste for feces (at least our own children’s), and no need to leave them with five-year-old babysitters, would never dream of giving them twice-daily enemas; for the Beng, it’s perfectly reasonable.
Nso mothers in Cameroon don’t encourage their babies to smile; they think it’s more important to keep them calm. Gusii mothers in Kenya go farther to encourage calmness: like an American mother trying to make nighttime wakeups as boring as possible in the hopes her baby will go back to sleep, they avoid even making eye contact with their infants. Western parents, of course, spend a lot of time on face-to-face interactions with our infants, full of what the developmental psychologists call “turn-taking pauses,” as in my own inane soliloquies to my pre-verbal children: “Now Mommy’s going to fold some laundry! Oh, look, it’s Daddy’s sock. What color is Daddy’s sock? … It’s blue! Can you say blue? … What else is blue, honey? … Say, ‘Mommy, you know I can’t talk because I’m a baby, stop erasing my lived experience!’” The Baganda of Uganda are even more obsessed than we are with face-to-face interaction and getting their babies to smile, to the point that anthropologists studying the infants’ motor development had trouble getting them to look away from the faces long enough to interact with the experimental objects. The Efe pygmies of the Congolese rainforest pass a newborn around to all the women of the tribe, then all the men waiting outside the birthing hut, before the new mother holds her child, and throughout their childhoods young Efe will be nursed by multiple women even within the space of an hour. I could go on.
I’ll go on. Medieval European babies were often swaddled so tightly their rigid forms could be propped against walls. The Navajo bound their babies to cradleboards. Babies in rural areas of Greece, Turkey, and the Levant are still “salted” before being swaddled to “preserve their skin.” Among some northern Chinese groups, babies spend up to sixteen hours at a time on their backs with their bottom half encased in a sandbag. I was once told that crawling on hands and knees (as opposed to scooting around on the bottom, which is what my baby was doing at the time) was absolutely crucial for avoiding dyslexia, but in many societies that don't have our nice clean floors babies never crawl.5 Babies among the Au of Papua New Guinea generally scoot when they become mobile; on the island of Wogeo, a baby who tries to crawl is immediately scooped up and carried instead. The Kipsigis of Kenya carefully teach their babies to sit, stand, and walk, as do the !Kung, who believe that babies who are not intentionally taught these things will never develop the skills on their own. The Nso, mentioned above, agree: one fascinating set of studies filmed Nso and German mothers interacting with their children and then showed all the videos to both groups. German mothers were alarmed by the Nso women’s vigorous handling of their babies and the lack of eye contact; Nso mothers criticized the German women for letting their babies lie on their backs on the ground and one woman even “suggested…that it might be forbidden in Germany to carry babies on the lap or close on the body of the mother.”
Baby Meets World is full of this stuff, and all these babies turn out fine.
Well, most of them.
Most of Baby Meets World is quite cheerful: aren’t human beings fascinating? Day asks us. Aren’t babies — in addition to being adorable — wondrous? Sure, the Chinese sandbag babies suffer gross motor delays relative to Western children, but they do no worse than American “back is best” infants compared to Kipsigis babies drilled from birth (okay, fine, six months) in sitting. But the first section of the book, “Suck,” details the truly disastrous consequences to some of the ways humans have fed their babies. Let’s make like a breast and start with colostrum, which the breastfeeding-industrial complex likes to call “liquid gold” for the high concentrations of antibodies, proteins, and minerals it provides to the vulnerable newborn, as well as for its yellowish color. Even mothers who don’t intend to breastfeed long-term are often urged to at least provide colostrum to their infants for its protective properties, and yet many cultures forbid it to babies, usually out of fear that it is harmful (colostrum is contaminated by semen, according to New Guineans; colostrum is a variety of pus rather than milk, per some South Asian cultures). Until the seventeenth century, European physicians sometimes forbade nursing for up to a month after delivery, which was a recipe for reduced milk supply, clogged ducts, and mastitis — never mind the question of what the baby was supposed to eat in the meantime.
But in a great many Western societies, mothers never breastfed at all. Their babies might still get breastmilk, either in the upper-class form of employing another new mom to live in their house and breastfeed their baby or the lower-class version, common in eighteenth-century France, in which the new baby is sent to the countryside to be breastfed by a stranger, but in much of northern Europe they were fed animal milk or, especially, pap. Pap is a mixture of milk and water with flour or mushed bread, with perhaps some meat broth, butter, or beer added to the mixture, and occasionally “grilled onions and caramel and marigold petals for the color; plaster and whitewash and clay for the viscosity; and for the cream, emulsions of animal brains.” Add to this the fact that babies often had up to two quarts poured down their throats with a special “pap boat,” threw up, and were filled again — and that before the germ theory of disease there was little motivation to clean the pap boat thoroughly after feeding — and it’s not surprising that Swedish and Bavarian regions with little breastfeeding had dramatically higher rates of infant mortality than ones where mothers nursed their children. (Wet nursing might seem a better practice, but in fact babies sent to the country had twice the mortality rate of those who were nursed at home, in large part because the destitute country nurses took in more babies than they could properly feed. The children of the rich, on the other hand, did just fine on their wet nurses’ milk, but prevailing medical belief dictated that only “new” milk was suitable for newborns; the wet nurse was expected to have her own equally new baby, but to leave him behind.)
As tragic as these stories are, though, in another sense I find them genuinely heartening: the generations of babies who survived these diets were, again, fine. And say what you like about the things our Western reductionist analytical framework misses (and oh, I do), it’s been extremely good at figuring out how not to kill babies.6 If you’re choosing between breastfeeding and formula — assuming, which I think is safe, that you have clean water, nutritionally appropriate artificial food, and the basic knowledge of how to avoid contaminating it — you are already so far ahead of the game that you and your baby will absolutely, 100%, be okay.
Of course, I’m begging the question here with my blithe assumption that just “okay” is, well, okay. Isn’t that aiming a little low? Surely we want better than “okay” for our precious children? And on one level, yes, of course we do; we want to do everything right, give them every advantage, protect and nurture and challenge them in exactly the right proportions and with infinite care and patience. On the other hand, though, “basically okay” — reasonably fulfilled, fairly happy, essentially virtuous — is a success. Just think how many people that doesn’t describe. And even more importantly, many of those things we want for our children are not things we ourselves can provide. I can love God, serve my fellow man, seek truth, create beauty; I can want my children to do those things too. But I can’t do it for them. We try to lay the groundwork for them, but they have to do the rest. Our job as parents is to love our children, to teach and guide them, but most of all it’s to meet their needs —and babies’ needs are very simple. Intense, of course, because they’re a matter of life and death to the baby (and they feel that way to the harried parent who can’t figure out what the problem is or how to fix it), but beyond a baby’s basic physiological needs, they really only need attention, affection, and security. It doesn’t seem to matter if it comes from an American mother flashing black-and-white vision stimulation cards during tummy time or from a Gusii mother who thinks it’s “silly to talk to a baby” rapidly nursing or snuggling her cranky infant back to calmness.
I don’t agree with half of what Bryan Caplan writes, but his Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is (in addition to a great caption for your adorable photos of your older kids reading to their younger siblings) right on the money. You can find a summary here or an NPR story on the book here, but the even shorter version is: as long as you don’t really mess your kids up, your marginal parenting decisions don’t make much difference to how they turn out; therefore, you should worry less about getting them into Harvard and more about making sure that you and they enjoy their childhood.7 Most of the choices you’re consciously making will have no impact in the long term but can do a lot to make everyone miserable right now; the stuff that matters is the boring everyday consistency of patience and stability and loving their other parent. I don't limit my kids' screen time because I think it'll rot their brains or poison their long-term capacity for imagination (Stephen King memorably describes a childhood spent in front of the television) but because it makes them cranky and boring and whiny now. I take them for walks and read them books and teach them things because those things make people happy, and I want to live with happy people who have interesting ideas and recognize plants and make stupid puns at the dinner table. I want to raise people I like living with. And insofar as these different ways of raising babies have different effects, they more or less boil down to that.
Consider the Nso moms, fostering motor development with the singlemindedness the Germans brought to cognitive skills, and then consider that Nso children are essentially apprentices in a subsistence agricultural economy. Think of what our own culture values! Just before I put my toddler down for a nap, we were playing a game where he pointed to each object in his room and I told him the word for it. Sometimes he would break in with something like “blue shirt!” and I would echo, “Yes! Good job! Blue shirt!” Then I said good night, sat down at my computer, and opened a paper that described middle-class Western parents as “likely to ask questions, praise the child, imitate the child’s utterances, and label objects.” Owned by the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology! But really, we’re all working hard to keep our babies safe while developing the skills that will allow them to participate more thoroughly in the life of the family, whether socially or productively. We’re all trying to make everyone’s life easier, happier, and better.
This is a weirdly controversial point, though, because there’s a mile-wide masochistic streak in modern PMC Western parenting: if you’re not suffering, you must be doing it wrong. Like many of our culture’s lies, this is a twisted and distorted version of the truth: parenthood does involve a great deal of sacrifice, there is dignity and worth in pouring yourself out for someone else, and the inescapable difficulties that accompany duty and interdependence do ennoble us. All too often, though, the point of the suffering is forgotten and it’s valorized for its own sake. If being a good parent sometimes means things are very hard, then surely things being even harder means you are an even better parent! Putting the baby down so you can make yourself a sandwich is lazy, wearing earplugs while rocking a colicky infant is neglectful, if you didn’t want to spend fifteen hours a day reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar on repeat why did you even have kids. (Is it any wonder that this group is way below replacement fertility?) I don’t know where this comes from: maybe it’s latent Puritanism, maybe elite class positions are now so precarious that parents want to be absolutely sure they maximize their investment, maybe our ever-smaller and more isolated families mean we don’t know what we’re doing and this is a protective mentality that’s grown up around learned helplessness, or maybe it’s the successor ideology’s insistence that only oppression imbues moral worth. But whatever the reason, conversations about parenting can shade into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch: “Gwendolyn wouldn’t nap unless someone was holding her for ninety-three months.” “You think that’s bad?! I haven’t taken a shower since 2015.”
Which is why I have such a grudge against the !Kung. Not the real !Kung, who live in the Kalahari Desert and are probably perfectly nice,8 but the rhetorical !Kung, who live in books by William Sears and blog posts about why you’re a bad mother if you ever put your baby down. !Kung babies, you see, are never put down while they're awake (and rarely while asleep, either). They're also nursed on demand as frequently as every fifteen minutes, sleep beside their mothers, and are shushed and comforted within a few seconds of beginning to cry. And this is all very interesting, especially because the !Kung and their fellow San (“Bushman”) tribes are one of the only hunter-gatherer cultures left on Earth, they’ve been genetically and culturally isolated from the rest of humanity for at least 100,000 years, and they live in roughly similar environments to those in which we think the earliest anatomically modern humans evolved. In short, their culture is probably the closest we can get, in the contemporary world, to how our ancient ancestors behaved. (Frequent and extended breastfeeding, for instance, works wonders at inducing lactational amenorrhea, thereby naturally spacing children far enough apart that the whole family can survive in a punishing environment without having to resort to abortion or infanticide, which are both extremely common in small-scale subsistence societies.) So it shouldn’t be surprising that !Kung-style attachment parenting has become the paleo diet of baby care — “we evolved to do it this way.” And !Kung parenting seems to work pretty well in !Kung culture: there, mothers are part of close-knit bands full of other adults who are constantly in one another’s presence, less like even extremely friendly neighbors than having your entire extended family in your house all the time. Much of that instant comforting of the babies comes from other women in the group, and even when it doesn’t, presumably they’re at least available to hand a hungry new mom the !Kung version of a sandwich. By all means, cosleep or babywear or breastfeed your toddler! (I do some of those.) But you’re not going to break your baby if you put him down for ten minutes while you take a shower. Trying to provide the constant physical contact and instant responsiveness of a !Kung mother alone in your house, plus the intensive social interaction and cognitive stimulation of WEIRD parenting, and then feeling guilty when you can’t, is a recipe for profound suffering — which, I darkly suspect, is why people think it’s so great. If you’re not grinding yourself down to a nub in spurious pursuit of perfection, why did you even have kids? Well is it any surprise that, statistically, you increasingly don’t?
As a matter of intellectual history, it’s fascinating to read Baby Meets World’s overview of Western beliefs about babies changing with the zeitgeist. You can watch the sentimental Victorians give way to Progressive-era technocratic expertise, and then the rise of our own “crunchier,” attachment-heavy age. Perhaps it’s a little jarring to realize that we (possibly), our parents (probably), and our grandparents (definitely) were raised by people who held dramatically different beliefs about infancy than we do: before Dr. Spock, parents were urged to avoid touching their babies more than necessary, and well into the 1960s and 70s most subscribed to what Day calls the “potted plant” paradigm, in which infants were held to be basically passive and inert, unaware of the world around them. But again, as an anxious new mother, I found this all tremendously reassuring — fashions in baby care change, beliefs about babies change, but babies don’t. The point is to find the practices that will work for you: your baby, your family. Forget all the arguments, forget the angst about the right way for your baby to eat, sleep, and excrete. Chill out about the baby. Enjoy the baby, and the toddler she grows into, then go have another one. The real story of human infants is in this one little sentence from Nicholas Day: “While everyone was screaming in italics, the babies themselves seem to have done just fine.”
We’re all firstborns. It seems statistically improbable but it’s true.
In my more exhaustion-loopy postpartum moments, I have amused myself by prepending “former baby” to everything I read. Come on, “former baby Ayn Rand” is objectively hilarious. “Former baby G.W.F. Hegel.” This is comedy gold.
These days he seems to be entirely offline — he hasn’t written anything since 2015 and his personal website is now just gambling ads, which is the digital equivalent of weeds growing up between the paving stones of an abandoned city. Good for him. I wish him and his former babies the best.
According to a sociologist friend, the difference between sociology and anthropology is indoor plumbing. Similarly, the difference here between history and ethnography seems to be “white people.”
Today, this is the child from whom I most frequently have to confiscate books to make sure we get out of the house on time, so I think I can confidently say that the fears about crawling are overrated but heritability is a bitch.
At least not, you know, by accident.
It’s worth noting that Bryan Caplan ran an insanely ambitious (and apparently incredibly successful, since they both got full rides to Vanderbilt) homeschooling program for his twin sons, but he points out that this was mostly in the interests of giving them a better childhood. And since I am also a giant nerd raising giant nerd kids, I totally buy it.