Book Review: ‘Our Babies, Ourselves’ by Meredith F. Small

This is one of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite book on the topic of babycare. It is essentially a cross-cultural study of child rearing practices, a bit like ‘Babies’ the movie – but the serious hardback version, with lots of research citations.

It plays to my interests, I have long found it fascinating to understand in what ways our behaviour is a response to the environments we have adapted to, throughout evolution (as well as ways culture plain disregards basic biology). Plus it shed light on and helped me further think through various parenting decisions including feeding, sleeping arrangements and how best to carry the baby from a to b (pram or sling, for example) based not on the current fad in my culture but taking a longer, historical and a wider socio-cultural view.

For me, personally, it has normalised a lot of my mothering choices by placing them in a context where it is clear that my intuition is responding to my and my baby’s biological needs – even if many of my peers are choosing different (equally acceptable but more culture led, than biology based) paths. Natural (from the breast, not the bottle) nursing at will (not on a schedule) is one example. Another is co-sleeping – this is still by far the most common sleeping arrangement for babies around the world. And this book lists many of the reasons this is healthiest for the baby who synchs not only their breathing but even their heartbeat to the carers they sleep by – which can be crucial especially in the first months of life, as the baby learns to regularise these rhythms (and ultimately can help prevent SIDS).

Conversely, ‘insufficient milk syndrome’ and ‘colic’ were revealed as uniquely western conditions in that they seem to appear in MUCH higher levels in industrialised countries than more traditional societies (where they are all but unheard of). The author explores the possible reasons behind this, but it pretty much seems to come down to social not physical causes. Most women do have enough milk, she tells us, but not enough support, knowledge or experience to establish a good supply and demand balance with their baby from the start, and plenty of alternatives which are equally socially acceptable and often easier for the mother than breastfeeding. And colic is unheard of in places where the baby is held and fed almost continually from birth (the first month seems especially crucial in establishing a trustful, almost symbiotic relationship between parent and child so that the child never ‘learns’ to cry inconsolably for extensive periods), according to the author. But really – you need to read the book to get the full flavour of what I am speaking of here, as Small weaves a tapestry of colourful examples from cultures as divergent as Japan, Kenya, Korea, USA, Brazil, Peru, etc.

I will say, ‘Our Babies, Ourselves’ knocked some of my lingering romanticism about more ‘primitive’ societies right out of me. Infanticide was mentioned more in this book than I am comfortable with and in one group (hailing from Peru) neither Anya nor I would be alive, seeing as they bury breech babies alive!! (I assume mostly because they are considered the ‘runt’ and the energy and food investment to rear them would be too high in this particular forest dwelling tribe).

On the other hand, it offers fascinating vignettes such as the variation of childhood milestones according to culture. Where in some societies it is advantageous for children to walk early, on average they walk months earlier than their American counterparts. Conversely cultures where infants learning to walk early would only put them in more danger (say of getting lost or of predators, again in the rain-forest of Peru) they can walk on average a year later than American babies.

In one tribe, the Kenyan based one I believe, babies live in slings all day, as their mothers work and they help themselves to milk every 13 minutes, on average.

It was also fascinating to learn that children considered ‘difficult’ in our culture are actually the most likely to survive in extremely challenging conditions (like facing possible starvation) presumably because they are more vocal than ‘easier’ babies in demanding that their basic needs be met. Excessive crying may be maladaptive in our (mostly) comfortable societies where basic needs like warmth and food are met – maladaptive in that excessive crying can actually push modern parents away – but it made total sense in the types of environments in which this behaviour evolved. You see?! Fascinating!

For parents who, like me, want to disentangle fad from physical need, hearsay from scientific research and old wives tales from real human experience this book is the light. It helped me feel ‘normal’ in the family of mankind even where I have chosen to align my choices with people from across the world more than some of my local peers… then again, I live in California, now. I am surrounded by people making all kinds of choices. This book is for all of us!

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One thought on “Book Review: ‘Our Babies, Ourselves’ by Meredith F. Small

  1. Pingback: Our Babies, Ourselves - Natural Mama

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