Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Pre- and Peri-Natal Anthropology II: The Puerperium in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Pre- and Peri-Natal Anthropology II: The Puerperium in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Modern pre- and perinatal psychology recognizes that the period of life immediately after birth is a significant one for the future development of the human being. This paper surveys the many ways that cultures around the world interpret the puerperium, and the ways they treat the mother and infant and structure mother-infant interaction during this vulnerable period. Both holocultural, statistical summaries and individual case studies are reported, covering such issues as infant feeding patterns, mother-infant separation, isolation of mother and infant from the community, acceptance and rejection of the infant, the postpartum sex taboo and other restrictions.

Babies, unlike tadpoles or tortoises, survive only because there are mothers, or others able to take their place who can respond to them in a nurturing way. Part of this maternal response is purely instinctual. Much of it is learned, and is acquired from the culture, for even instinctual responses need an appropriate setting in which they can unfold.

Sheila Kitzinger, Women As Mothers

In an earlier work (Laughlin 1989a) I presented a review of the kinds of cross-cultural information of interest to pre- and perinatal psychology that are available in the anthropological literature. In another set of publications (Laughlin 1989b, 1991) I reviewed the literature on fetal and infant brain development and suggested the importance of this development to theory and research in anthropology. In this paper I continue in my efforts to lay a foundation for an anthropology of preand perinatal life by examining the available cross-cultural data pertaining to the puerperium.

Technically speaking, the puerperium "is the period which elapses after the birth of a child until the mother is again restored to her ordinary health" (Black's Medical Dictionary, 36th edition, p. 563). But I am using the term more loosely to refer to the period of hours and weeks after delivery in the life of both the infant and its mother (and other caretakers). I am specifically interested in how different societies treat the mother and infant after birth, and how different cultures interpret and structure events during that period. My theoretical standpoint is a neuroanthropological one that begins with a perceptually and cognitively competent infant who is inherently social in its needs, proclivities, interests and experiences.


We now know that the neonatal neurocognitive system is structurally precocious and perceptually competent (see Bower 1989). Moreover, the preparedness of the neonatal perceptual/cognitive system for learning is not limited to learning related to physical objects and spatial relations within the environment. The infant is inherently social in its activities, and participates fully and actively in socially related learning (Tronick 1980, Papousek and Papousek 1982, Murray and Trevarthen 1985, Bower 1989, Pitman et al. 1989). This comes as no surprise to those who keep in mind that the human species is one of a number of social primates, and that the early development of a human being must always be considered within its social and biological context (see Laughlin 1991).

As is generally the case for primates (Lancaster 1975:21, Nash and Wheeler 1982), the earliest and developmentally most important relationship for the human neonate is usually the relationship with the mother. As is also generally the case for primates, much of early learning occurs in the context of affection and physical contact between mother and infant (Pitman, Eisikovits and Dobbert 1989:13). Indeed, as Poirier (1973) and McKenna (1982) note, the primate mother-infant relationship is the most intense in the animal kingdom. Yet, despite the fact that the human fetus/infant is socially dependent, it is nonetheless an autonomous, self-regulating organism. The infant exercises its precocity within both the physiological constraints of its behavioral altriciality ("helplessness") and the social constraints imposed by parents, siblings and other caregivers. …

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