The Evolved Nest has been integral to 99% of human genus history and provides a baseline for optimizing normal development. Hewlett & Lamb (2005) provide an overview:
“young children in foraging cultures are nursed frequently; held, touched, or kept near others almost constantly; frequently cared for by individuals other than their mothers (fathers and grandmothers, in particular) though seldom by older siblings; experience prompt responses to their fusses and cries; and enjoy multiage play groups in early childhood.” (p. 15)
Here are more suggestions of what to do and details about the importance of each of these Components of The Evolved Nest:
SOOTHING PERINATAL EXPERIENCES
What to do:
• Relax during pregnancy as much as possible.
• If at all possible, prepare for a naturalistic birth in a birthing center.
• Remember that babies vary in gestational residence by about 50 days. So the “due date” is a guess and does not necessarily match up with a particular baby’s developmental course.
• Avoid trauma and induced pain to baby at birth which come from:
o Separating baby from mom after birth
o Painful procedures (scrubbing baby, poking with needles, eye gel)
o Bright lights, chemical smells, rough touches
o Circumcision (causes PTSD in many children, plus long term physical and psychological impairments). See Doctors Opposing Circumcision for lots of information.
o Avoid environmental toxins (air, food, water, consumer products) which can not only impair brain function and intelligence, but make one feel less well and socially withdrawn. Environmental Working Group has lists of product ratings.
Childbirth is naturally timed to indicate when the child is ready to be born (sometimes exiting the womb early because of problematic development or maternal stress).
Modern practices often interfere with nature’s timing. Humans have changed this heritage with psychological interference (e.g., anticipation of pain, causing fear and contraction of muscles instead of relaxation. Natural oxytocin and epinephrine are released by the mother during unimpeded labor, suppressing pain, coordinating uterine contractions and supporting emotional bonding through hormone releases that facilitate memory and social reward (Lévy, Kendrick, Goode, Guevara-Guzman, Keverne, 1995).
Vaginal birth may parallel the extensive licking that other newborn mammals receive from their mothers (Montagu, 1978). Similar to mammals who go unlicked, cesarean-birthed babies have respiratory, digestive and elimination problems. In fact, the physiological stress of natural birth triggers high levels of mitochondrial uncoupling protein 2 (UCP2) which is related to nutrient utilization critical for normal development and survival of hippocampal and other brain neurons, affecting memory and other functions in adulthood (Simon-Areces, Dietrich, Hermes, Garcia-Segura, Arevalo et al., 2012).
Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, APPPAH
RESPONSIVENESS TO NEEDS AND CUES
What to do:
• Learn the cues your baby gives to signal needs. Skin-to-skin contact is especially good for this in the early hours, days and months of life.
• Learn to move in with a response before your baby cries—in order to keep baby in optimal arousal. Otherwise your baby will practice becoming distressed as part of his personality.
After nine months of gestational synchrony, human mothers and neonates under natural conditions typically move into an interactional synchrony of sound and movement within the first hours after birth (e.g., Condon & Sander, 1974; Papousek & Papousek, 1992). Caregivers act as external regulators of psychological and biological development (Hofer, 1994; Schore, 2001). Optimal human development is thus rooted in social synchrony with others who help the child maintain optimal arousal levels (Reddy, 2008; Schore, 1994; Trevarthen, 2005).
In early life, the brain is forming its emotional circuitry and structures in collaboration with caregivers (for reviews, see Schore, 1994; 2001). Responsive caregivers, in mutual co-regulation, shape the infant brain for self-regulation within and across multiple sensory systems (e.g., respiratory, hormonal), influencing multiple levels of functioning (Hofer, 1994) and establishing emotional patterns that promote confidence and mental health.
For example, responsive care with co-regulated communication patterns is related to good vagal tone, which is critical for well functioning digestive, cardiac, respiratory, and immune as well as emotional systems (e.g., Donzella et al., 2000; Propper et al 2008; Stam et al., 1997). Non-responsive parenting leads to poor vagal tone (e.g., Calkins, Smith, Gill & Johnson, 1998; Porter, 2003). Other systems are also affected negatively. For example, having a depressed mother (whose nurturing responses are limited) alters the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA; e.g., Beatson & Taryan, 2003; see Dawson, Ashman & Carver, 2000, for a review).
BUT: Isn’t it normal for babies to cry? Not in our ancestral context. That would have been quite unwise. Unfortunately, a common cultural misperception is that letting babies cry themselves to sleep represents adequate parenting (Gethin & MacGregor, 2009). When babies are left to cry, with no parental attempt at timely comforting, their brains are flooded with high levels of potentially neurotoxic stress hormones such as cortisol (Blunt Bugental, Martorell, & Barraza, 2003; Gunnar & Donzella, 2002).
• Opioids, which promote feelings of wellbeing, diminish during human sadness (Zubieta et al., 2003) and psychic pain circuits are aroused (Eisenberger et al., 2003; Panksepp, 2003). Stress response systems can be wired permanently for oversensitivity and overreactivity (Anisman et al., 1998), leading to predispositions for clinical depression and anxiety (Barbas et al., 2003; de Kloet et al., 2005; see Watt & Panksepp, 2009, for a review), poor mental and physical health outcomes, and accelerated aging and mortality (for a review, Preston & de Waal, 2003).
• Unrelieved distress in early life reduces the expression of GABA genes, leading to anxiety and depression disorders as well as increased use of alcohol for stress relief (Caldji et al., 2000; Hsu et al., 2003).
• When emotional dysregulation becomes chronic, it forms the foundation for further psychopathologies (Cole, Michel & Teti, 1994), especially depression.
• Infant emotional dysregulation is related to subsequent mental illness, including a propensity for violence (Davidson, Putnam & Larson, 2000).
• Stress that leads to “insecure attachment” disrupts emotional functioning, compromises social abilities and can promote a permanent bias towards self-preservation (Henry & Wang, 1998; also see Schore, 2009, for a review).
What to do:
· Provide the breast whenever the baby indicates rooting and other signals of need for the breast. This is part of responsive parenting described above.
· Don’t make the baby wait or stress hormones start to flow.
· Breastfeed for at least a year if not 4 or 5 as in our species-normal societies.
Breastfeeding frequency. Mammalian milk is species specific for each of the over 4,000 mammalian species (AAP, 2005). Human milk is of the thin, rather than thick, variety, which is related to frequent ingestion or at least suckling (on average every 20 minutes for infants as recorded by anthropologists; see Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner & Worthman, 1980).
Breastfeeding length. In the ancestral context, breastfeeding took place on average from 2-5 years (weaning at age 4 on average; Konner, 2005; 2010). These patterns are still evident in aboriginal populations little influenced by outside cultures. According to Dettwyler’s (1995) review (see table 3) humans should be breastfeeding much longer than they are, based on what other primates do in relation to offspring maturation schedule. The end of the range, age 6-7, is when the immune system reaches adult levels and much of the brain is completed (Parham, 2004).
Human mothers, who provided immunity through the placenta, continue to provide immunity after birth, first with colostrum immediately after birth and thereafter with breast milk. Although infants have gastric enzymes for digesting their mother’s colostrum and milk, digestive enzymes for other foods do not develop for several months. Breast milk abounds with infection fighting agents that foster immune and digestive health in the young child. Specific to the environment in which the mother and infant find themselves, mammalian milk produces antibodies for various infective agents (e.g., Slusser & Powers, 1997).
See an extensive list of Breastfeeding Resources here.
What to do:
• Carry, hold, rock your baby as much as possible.
• Stay physically close 24/7.
• Practice skin-to-skin contact as much as you can.
• For older children, play with them in whole body ways. Cuddles and roughhouse!
Human babies are much more social and malleable than are other animals where most studies of touch have taken place. Animal studies show:
• Losing contact with the parent is distressing.
• Even a few minutes of separation in rat babies causes lifelong changes in stress response (Levine, 2005), which when mild and graded can help the offspring cope with the stress of separation (Katz et al., 2009).
• Multiple systems are regulated by the presence of the mother and quickly become dysregulated when she is physically absent (Hofer, 1994).
• Physical separation activates painful emotions (Ladd, Owens, & Nemeroff, 1996; Panksepp, 2003; Sanchez, Ladd, & Plotsky, 2001)
• Monkeys isolated from adults when babies spend their lives with deficits of 5-HIAA, a main metabolite of serotonin (critical for intelligence and happiness, social behavior) (e.g., Kalin, 1999; Suomi, 2006).
MULTIPLE RESPONSIVE CAREGIVERS
What to do:
Gather a community of support for you and your child (ideally other adult relatives are supportive of helping provide the evolved nest).
During the period of rapid brain development that is the first years of life, babies and young children need rapid attention to their needs for comfort, affection and play. It’s too much for one person, so our species evolved a village of care (Hrdy, 2009).
POSITIVE SOCIAL CLIMATE: Need for sense of BELONGING and support
What to do:
• After birth, plan a “laying in” where other mothers wait on you and your baby. This was common practice in traditional societies.
• Get a community of support together for you and your child (ideally other adult relatives are supportive of helping provide the evolved nest).
Human mothers evolved to have a built-in safety net of other adult support (Hrdy, 2009). Supportive social contact is known to be a positive influence during birthing and post-natal mother-child communication (Klaus & Kennel, 1976), and in fact, three attentive adults (parents and/or alloparents) appear to be optimal for children to thrive (Sagi et al., 1995; van Ijzendoorn, Sagi, & Lambermon, 1992).
SELF-DIRECTED SOCIAL PLAY
What to do:
Humans are mammals. Young mammals play when they feel safe and well. People who have little self-directed social play experience tend to be more aggressive and have other behavior disorders (e.g., van den Berg et al., 1999), as well as diminished academic achievement (Barros, Silver & Stein, 2009).
Resources for Free Play
What to do:
• Take up suggestions from Richard Louv (http://richardlouv.com/), such as in his book, Vitamin N. Select activities according to the interests and abilities of you and your child.
• Let your child wander around outside exploring the natural world.
• Go to local, state and national parks with your child and let them have as much freedom as possible.
• Talk about the rest of the natural world as part of your community.
• Learn about local animals and plants and what they need to thrive.
• Get involved in local outdoor family clubs.
One of the known causes for the planetary crises humanity is facing currently (e.g., global warming, climate instability, melting glaciers, toxic pollution, biodiversity loss) is the lack of caring for the rest of nature and the sense of separation from it (T. Berry, 1999; W. Berry, 2012). Our species is a creature of the earth and has evolved with the rest of the natural world, which preserves us.
Resources for Nature Connection
Discover insights into The Evolved Nest with our monthly newsletters.