Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Babies Are Not What We Thought: Call for a New Paradigm*

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Babies Are Not What We Thought: Call for a New Paradigm*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Babies are not what we thought they were in the 19th century or even twenty five years ago. Abundant new findings from experimental research, psychotherapy, and anecdotal reports have rendered traditional views of human development obsolete, yet many obstetricians and psychologists continue to view babies in 19th century terms. The author summarizes this view and its failings and assembles the evidence for a new paradigm that babies, of whatever age, are aware, expressive, and affected by their interactions with others.


Babies are not what we thought they were in the 19th century or even what we thought they were twenty five years ago. During the 20th century while medicine was learning more about baby bodies, psychology was learning about their minds. The results have been surprising. The findings of psychology are so revolutionary that virtually everything we believed a quarter century ago has been discredited and a new encyclopedia of knowledge has been written about the senses, perception, cognition, communication, and personality of babies, both newborn and unborn.1,2,3,4

The implications of this revolution are especially important for everyone who has a role in bringing babies into the world: parents, childbirth educators, midwives, nurses, neonatologists, obstetricians, and pediatricians. What concerns me deeply is that medical belief and practice has not kept pace with these psychological discoveries and, if there are no major steps ahead in the next few years, obstetrics is in danger of marching straight into the 21st century with a 19th century view of infants.


In retrospect, the 19th century view of infants was based on a maximum of speculation and minimum of research. Important theorists like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget had minimal contact with babies and knew almost nothing about life before birth.

Scientists knew a century ago that the brains of babies were small and undeveloped; they could see how poorly coordinated the motor system was and believed that babies could not organize themselves, control behavior, or attach meaning to experience. On this basis, pain and suffering were impossible, violent reactions were only "reflexes," and smiles and other facial expressions were "artifacts." Baby cries were not genuine communication signals and were not respected. When surgery was necessary, babies were paralyzed but given no anesthesia because they could not possibly remember the experience and anesthetics might do more harm than raw surgery. Doctors counted heavily on the fact that whatever they did to babies at birth or before birth would effect their physical bodies and nothing more.

When male physicians took control of birth between 1880 and 1930 they brought these 19th century ideas with them. Therefore, it is no accident that the routines invented for hospital birth turned out to be painful for babies. Even the dramatic reactions to male circumcision were dismissed as something impersonal. Doctors separated babies from their mothers no matter how hard they cried or how hungry they became; babies got bottles instead of breasts, nurses instead of mothers and fathers, and group care rather than the individual care normally given by parents. For a half century now, newborns have been greeted with painful injections, skin punctures, refrigerated air, dazzling lights, stinging eye medication, were slapped to get an Apgar score, straightened out for body measurements, and had their heels lanced for blood samples. While waiting in the birth canal, some babies had their scalps pierced with electrodes.

Back when no one could see into the womb, it was considered a safe place, the placenta a magic protective barrier. Inside, the fetus was considered deaf and dumb. Outside, the newborn was considered blind and senseless, belonged in a nursery in the hospital or at home, and needed sleep more than anything else. …

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