Implications of mother baby separation: Reflections from Nikki Lee

A few Saturdays ago, I enjoyed the last couple of minutes of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me: The Oddly Informative News Quiz on my way home from yoga.

One of the comedians joked about our nation’s detachment parenting style: “You can actually go weeks without touching your child,” she referenced the assortment of gadgets we strap our babies into.

I chuckled as I envisioned clickable car seats and the swings, bouncy seats, exersaucers, cribs, etc. that clutter my closets. But as I contemplated her one-liner, my laughter quickly turned into serious concern. Our society’s disregard for nature and endorsement of mother baby separation has humorless consequences and lasting effects.

mailNot long ago, I read the very insightful and sage Nikki Lee’s RN, MSN, IBCLC, ANLC, CIMI, CCE, CKC “Give me a break”: reasons mothers need mother substitutes on her blog Morning Thoughts. In it she references the baby gadgets Western families flock to, so I asked her to speak with me about the implications of mother baby separation on our society.

What are the proponents of our culture that keep mothers and babies apart?

There’s our bottle culture, lack of proper maternity leave, lack of legal support and enforcement for breastfeeding families, the popularity of mother substitutes, improper education of health care professionals… just to name a few.

The longer the health and well-being of our mothers and babies are ignored, the more the future of our society will spin out of control.

“People don’t think of the consequences of common maternal infant care practices on our biological templates,” Lee says.

She goes on, “We are not products and workers in an assembly line. We are humans and we don’t have an operating system that works like a Mac or a PC; our biologic template flows with a stone age world, the moon and circadian rhythms and it’s all being ignored.”

How does mother baby separation affect mothers and consequently our society?

In our culture, mother-baby separation starts at birth, and perhaps even prenatally with ultrasound technology making some women feel separate from the baby growing in her womb, as Healthy Children faculty Cindy Turner-Maffei, MA, ALC, IBCLC suggests.

Separation is then perpetuated throughout early childhood. Babies are often whisked into nurseries soon after birth, in units miles away from the bodies in which they developed. If mom and baby are lucky enough to share a room, they are shielded from skin to skin contact by bundles of receiving blankets, hospital policies that discourage mothers from carrying their babies in their arms and interrupted in their breastfeeding attempts by a steady stream of staff and visitors.

Moreover, if mom follows the rules of society once released from the hospital by going back to work at six weeks postpartum and sleeping away from her baby, the dyad is separated on average 16 hours each day.

“How can you start out trying to fall in love in a long distance relationship?” Lee asks.

When mothers aren’t given the chance to fall in love, as they often aren’t in the U.S., horrific things can happen.

Almost every time I run errands, I run into an infuriated mother. I hear her shout things like “Stop acting like an idiot,” “Get your ass back over here,” and “Shut up” to her young kids, and I’ve even witnessed a mother smack her young daughter for not listening to her commands.

As the mother of a feisty, energetic, full-of-life, independent toddler, I understand the frustrations of being a parent. However, seeing the complete lack of respect coupled with the verbal violence between a mother and her baby leaves me heartbroken.  I can’t help but wonder if these angry mothers ever had the chance to truly fall in love with their babies.

Lee suggests something even more heartbreaking. While current research about child murder by mothers is limited, we do know that “maternal filicide…occurs more frequently in the United States than in other developed nations.” [Retrieved from: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=177747] Is this an effect of mother baby separation?

Lee also mentions that separation inhibits a mother from learning how to parent her child.

“Her intuition is being negated all of the time,” she explains. Moms are told to listen to the “experts”, not to herself, to her baby nor to other mothers.

Instead, mainstream media takes on the expert role. News coverage denouncing bed sharing and co-sleeping scares mothers away from following their instincts. Contrary to what popular culture leads us to believe, we know that bed sharing offers mom and baby an unequaled opportunity to bond when practiced safely. In fact, bedsharing promotes breastfeeding. Even better, “breastfeeding mothers actually get more sleep-particularly when the baby [is] in proximity to the mother…and that has major implications for [mothers’] mental health,” Kendall-Tackett writes in Nighttime Breastfeeding and Maternal Mental Health.

What does mother baby separation mean for babies and in turn our future?

Babies’ brains grow in layers. If the foundational layer gets the message of abandonment (which means death for a newborn), then all of the other layers become distorted, Lee explains. In some cases, the addition of chemical susceptibility from the use of pain relieving drugs in labor only intensifies these consequences.

“[Babies] are 10,000 years old when they are born,” Lee says. “If they’re not next to a heart beat, they are saber-toothed tiger lunch.”

As a result of the normalization of extended periods of isolation, our nation’s babies cry longer than other cultures’ infants. In other countries, mothers respond to their baby’s cries within seconds; but in the U.S., infant crying is ignored and consequently, lasts longer. (For more information about infant crying see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19731998 and http://www.parentingscience.com/infant-crying.html)

Do not be fooled by the infants lying quietly, immobile in plastic bins in hospital nurseries- those babies are not sleeping. Instead, research shows that  they have simply shut down. The newborn freezes, waiting for mother to return, Lee tells me.

Authors of Should Neonates Sleep Alone? found that “maternal-neonate separation is associated with a dramatic increase in heart rate variability power, possibly indicative of central anxious autonomic arousal. Maternal-neonate separation also had a profoundly negative impact on quiet sleep duration.”

This study does not draw conclusions on future implications, but Lee references a study included in Birthworks International’s Primal Health Research Database that comments on the treatment of mother and baby during birth experience and its lasting effects. Authors of Perinatal origin of adult self destructive behavior write, “Suicides involving asphyxiation were closely associated with asphyxiation at birth; suicides by violent mechanical means were associated with mechanical birth trauma; drug addiction was associated with opiate or barbiturate administration to mothers during labor.”

Lee comments, “When [babies] are delivered in violence, they grow up to expect violence.”

How can we reshape the way we treat mothers and babies?

A breastfeeding relationship is one way to turn the tide in our increasingly violent nation, Lee says.

She suggests we look at breastfeeding as a relationship between two people and stop focusing only on fixing latches and on how much milk mom makes.

“It’s not about shoving a breast in baby’s mouth,” Lee explains. “The baby has to take the breast in. Mamma sets the table; the baby has to pick up the fork.”  Letting a baby set the pace is not always compatible with hospital routines and practices.

Many hospital practices and routines dictate that baby has to breastfeed by X hours after birth, instead of staying skin to skin and being on her own timetable.

Lee explains, “Another part of the problem stems from the way many lactation and medical professionals talk about infant feeding patterns, as if babies are some bizarre species with an unusual way of eating. The way an infant feeds is the same as the way adults eat. Adults take sips of water throughout the day, enjoy occasional snacks, eat light meals, and indulge in big feasts. In addition, babies breastfeed for medicine, pain-relief, fun, comfort, and an all-encompassing and pleasurable sensory experience; these are all reasons that adults eat too.”

Lee offers yet another way to think about breastfeeding; she equates it to kissing your lover.  She asks “You’d never say ‘Go away, I already kissed you twice an hour ago’ to your lover, would you?”

For a baby who has been fed continually for nine months in the womb, who has to double its size in three or four months and whose stomach starts out the size of a marble, breastfeeding needs to be unlimited, especially at the beginning. Yet our culture does not recognize, respect nor support that relationship, she continues.

“We can survive without kissing, much like we can survive without breastfeeding, but what does life look like without kissing? What does life look like without breastfeeding? What does life look like without falling in love? How happy and can we be without that sweetness?” Lee wonders.

Lactation professionals help nursing dyads perfect positioning latch and work through other breastfeeding concerns. In addition, Lee suggests lactation workers ask mothers if they are having fun with their babies in order to emphasize the importance of developing a relationship.

Lactation staff can give mothers recommendations to physically connect with their babies by bathing with one another and practicing infant massage.   It might sound silly offering advice to a mother on how to connect and establish a relationship with her baby. But “how do we learn to have relationships when we don’t build it into our systems?” Lee asks.

She recalls shared maternity rooms at the now vanished Booth Maternity Hospital in Philadelphia. “A paradise run by women about women for women,” Lee calls the birthing facility.  Experienced mothers were paired with new moms so new mothers could learn through osmosis, by watching. Today private maternity rooms, although sometimes preferred by patients, leave moms isolated from each other. Separate rooms also create more work for nurses because one nurse must say the same things to each new mother instead of saying something once to several women and then leading a discussion about the topic.

Lee tells me Booth closed because it couldn’t survive corporate medicine. She says during Nixon’s presidency, health care became more about driving profits and efficiency than connecting with patients.

“And now we have this mess we are in today,” Lee refers to our current state of health care.

Despite this sad situation, Lee remains optimistic about our future. More people are talking about breastfeeding than ever before. Breastfeeding statistics are moving in the right direction. More mothers come into the hospital wanting to breastfeed. Now we need to muster community support so that everyone is on board.

Lee is excited about the California Baby Behavior Campaign, a one-of-a-kind program that focuses on the idea that babies are born needing relationships and are wired to be social and curious creatures.

“Breastfeeding is everybody’s business,” Lee quotes Marie Biancuzzo, RN MS IBCLC.

Progress is being made and we must remember to sustain our efforts. We can’t sit back and relax simply because favorable laws and programs have been established. Working to improve maternal infant health is like brushing your teeth everyday, Lee says.

“You can brush your teeth very well on Sunday and you still have to brush every other day.”

If you don’t, you suffer the consequences. While the U.S. has national breastfeeding strategies in place, Lee reminds us that these programs could disappear over night should political forces withdraw their support. Breastfeeding professionals must remain vigilant and proactive, she advises.

Lee will discuss the California Baby Behavior Campaign and give a presentation entitled “Words that Work” at Healthy Children’s upcoming International Breastfeeding Conference.

You can read more about Lee and her work at http://www.breastfeedingalwaysbest.com/. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nikkileehealth and enjoy her free webinar series.

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