By Sheila Kitzinger
Doctors used to claim that newborn babies could neither see nor hear, and that they could not feel much. They were simply bundles of flesh, and the more they screamed, the better, because it “opened their lungs”. Even some midwives believed this. I remember Margaret Myles, author of the highly respected textbook of midwifery, telling me that it was ridiculous to dim the lights at birth because a baby could not see anyway. Babies were blind.
Even mothers believed that their babies couldn’t see until they were six weeks old. They couldn’t hear anything either, because there was fluid inside the inner ear, so people could be as noisy as they liked. It was common practice to handle babies roughly, put them under a cold faucet, scrub them down, bundle them up, plunk them in cribs, and leave them in a nursery with rows upon rows of screaming babies.
Now we know that babies can see and can easily focus on an object about nine inches away–just the right distance to see your shining eyes and moving mouth when you hold the baby in your arms. They can hear, too, and are exquisitely sensitive. Within minutes of birth they look around and fix their eyes on the nearest interesting face. They startle if they are subjected to loud noises, and they turn towards the sound of the mother’s voice, because they already know it well, and heard it, along with all the thumps and rumblings of her digestive system, the pulsing of her heart, music and other people’s voices who were near, when they were inside her body.
Some women who want to have a gentle birth are very disappointed when their babies cry as they are born. They feel they must have done something wrong to make the baby unhappy. But babies often cry for about five minutes. It is their way of greeting life with astonishment as they are tipped out of the uterus into a new world.
Babies who are heavily drugged by medication that the mother has taken to relieve pain during labor may have been knocked out and just whimper, or not cry at all, or on the other hand, they may cry until exhausted. Research shows that babies who have received analgesic drugs usually cry longer than babies of mothers who have given birth without drugs.
A newborn baby who has not been dosed with medication is in an ideal neuro-physiological state to start out on the exciting task of getting to know the mother, and to explore and discover the breast, take a good mouthful, and suckle energetically.
Newborn lambs and kittens, and all other mammal babies, can find the mother’s nipple. It used to be thought that human babies could not do this. They had to be picked up and ‘put to the breast’. But if you wait patiently in a relaxed setting an undrugged baby will spontaneously creep up to the breast. He starts to root, turning his head from side to side, mouth open, chin nuzzling the mother’s skin, searching for the nipple. He uses hands as well as mouth. Immediately after birth the hands are relaxed. But after a few minutes they start to reach out and explore. The baby sucks his fingers, actually massages the breast, then licks it, and, in his own time, latches on and sucks. This can take up to an hour, and during this precious time the baby should not be disturbed by being weighed, bathed or dressed.
A new relationship is unfolding. Two people are getting to know each other.
This is adapted from Sheila’s new book, Birth Your Way: Choosing Birth at Home or in a Birth Center, to be published in March 2002 by Dorling Kindersley.