On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Personhood of Babies

I wonder whether part of the reason that we have such a difficult time seeing unborn babies as persons is that we have a difficult time seeing babies in general as people. Babies are an attraction, for sure. But so often in the clamor to hold the baby, pass the baby around from Aunt Clara to Uncle Bob, to Great Grandma Hoosier, Great Aunt Agnes and Mrs. Mc Gillicutty from next door, we forget that this is not a teddy bear, it's a real little person. It's a little person who doesn't yet know that their mommy and they are two separate people and so feels real distress when they are far from her or their daddy's arms (babies learn about daddies pretty early because the daddy is the other constant person in their lives). Pass the baby, kiss the baby are both practices with a lot of cultural acceptance, but they aren't necessarily great for the baby. Newborns, in particular should be being colonized with their mother's bacteria (to which they get immunity from her milk) rather than the bacteria of every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the neighborhood, or even Great Aunt Agnes. Babies stay oriented best by smelling their mother, they develop their immune systems best by being skin to skin with her. The time for relationships with other people will come. If we really respect the baby as a real person, we won't treat them like the present at a birthday party that simply gets passed around for all to see.

This is true for newborns and some people even accept it for newborns (because of the germs etc), but it continues to be true later in the first year. Babies may very often not like to be held by strangers (and if you aren't in the retinue of people who see them for upon hours every day they may well class you with strangers), sometimes they don't even like to make eye contact with strangers. Some family members respect this, others behave as though they're being insulted. I remember a friend whose little girl saw her grandmother nearly every day (they lived just a couple of doors away) who at 9 months wouldn't leave her mother's arms to go to her grandmother. My friend was distressed, the grandmother was upset, but I assured her that she simply needed to give the little girl time. In a few months grandma was happily one of the people Shannon was comfortable with; it was simply a developmental stage.

Some babies are quick to warm up to strangers, even at the most separation anxiety ridden stages. Other babies are slow to warm up even to their fathers (trust me, I had one of those). It is so important for family members, neighbors, friends, etc. to let the parents be the judge of just how comfortable their particular baby is at each particular stage of growth. If the parents are carefully respecting the individual personality of their baby, it's because they are respecting the baby as a real person instead of treating them as some sort of human doll.

We have a long history in this country of trying to make babies adapt to adult's wants instead of adults adapting to the baby's needs. Scheduled bottle feedings, letting babies cry it out to "train them" to sleep through the night, frequent separations from their mothers, and little concern about consistency of child care providers are just a few of the things we have done in our effort to make sure that a baby doesn't "disrupt" adult priorities any more than necessary. Mothers whose babies go on a schedule early, whose babies sleep through the night at an early age, whose children will go to any adult their parent hands them off to without complaints are congratulated on having done a good job. Mothers whose babies nurse ad lib, whose babies sleep close to them and wake in the night, and who prefer their mother's arms to a strangers are accused of spoiling their baby and having not done a good job. But it's the smart baby who knows where the best food is, who sleeps lightly and avoids SIDS, and who is well attached to its parents. That baby will eventually eat at family meals, sleep through the night, and make friends with people outside the immediate family circle, they will do it at the developmentally appropriate time for them and we need to respect them enough to wait for the appropriate time.

When my daughter was 2 our church had a Sunday School class for 2 year olds. Up until then Abby had gone into my class with me (in the back pack) or I had co-taught the class with her daddy and she was in arms with one or the other of us. The year she was 2 I taught a class of older children and she went to the 2 year old class, with her daddy. The teacher of the class was a first time mom with a two year old of her own. She was very critical of the fact that David went to the class with Abby, despite the fact that with him there Abby was having a good time and he was actually a help with the other kids. She said that we were encouraging clingy behavior and that Abby would never be independent. I assured this young mom that we knew what we were doing and that independence would come at the appropriate time. It did. As a matter of fact she was always by far our more independent child (once she was developmentally ready that is). If I'd been a first time mother I might have been coerced by that teacher, but by that time I knew something about children and how they come to learn independence. There was another little girl in our Sunday School whose mother listened to those coercing voices and kept putting her little one in the nursery during church. I happened to be the only one of the moms this little girl knew well, and I wasn't in the nursery for the whole of nursery time every week. I stayed in church until Abby and "had enough" and then she and I went to the nursery. Every week when I got there this little girl would be in nearly hysterical tears, until I picked her up. She wasn't completely happy then, but she was mollified sufficiently to be reasonably calm. The absolute only difference was that she knew me, and didn't know the nursery workers.

There is a myth still going around that crying is good for a baby's lungs. It's not. While some crying may happen with nearly any baby, crying is a sign of stress, it results in raised cortisol levels, and the other things that accompany stress. One job of parents, particularly with infants, is to reduce the stress, not to compound it. Comforting a baby, putting them back in a more comfortable situation is not spoiling them, it is respecting their personhood.

We need to remember that Our Lord treated children as people of importance. When the disciples saw them as a nuisance He told them, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." And that we must become like little children. Scripture tell us that perfect praise comes out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. Babies are not playthings or things to be manipulated for the benefit of adults. They are real people.

Often we have to warn our toddlers to be gentle with babies. Sometimes what we tell them is babies are people too, so they must be careful of them. It's important for us as adults to listen to those words as well.

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