by Jean Liedloff
Penguin Books £8.99
“I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book but if it could be, this might just be the book”, writes John Holt, author of How Children Learn. The key phrase in this book is “in-arms”, a baby’s birthright is to expect that embrace, that proximity, that continuum.
Perhaps it is not possible to transplant all features of continuum principles from a harmonious indigenous culture in a South American rainforest, but there is so much we can learn from their eternal and successful child-rearing practices that Leidloff describes, that we ignore this wisdom at our peril. “The children were well-behaved, they never fought, were never punished and always obeyed happily and instantly.”
Leidloff doesn’t use the term “attachment” because it implies something that isn’t intact in the first place. The continuum concept is simple; in gestation, a baby becomes accustomed to the mother’s environment. That is his first experience of having all his needs met. When born, that environment (mother’s heartbeat, nourishment, smells, sounds, movement and proximity) is continued by baby carrying, breast-feeding and co-sleeping. “Being held to a living body feels right” It’s the way all mammals rear their young. This mother-child continuum explains why Yequana babies are relaxed, content and secure. This in-arms phase is an equally necessary part of development, just as the period inside the womb is. The severing of this continuum explains the distress that begins in infancy and manifests in adulthood through extreme behaviours like compulsion, addiction, violence, loneliness, self-harm or abuse. A state of want is imprinted on the baby. “Every nerve ending under his newly exposed skin craves the expected embrace.”
Babies born in the civilised world are more likely to experience this in-arms deprivation. Colicky, distressed and crying babies are not part of the Yequana culture. “The notion that nature has evolved our species to suffer from indigestion every time it drinks its mother’s milk has, amazingly not been questioned by civilised experts. According to Leidloff, people in the civilised world are in a constant state of stress and she describes Sir John Bowlby’s report “Maternal Care and Mental Health” WHO 1951, thus; “It documents the torments of those still active in the battle for their birthright measure of love.” This leads us to a very powerful chapter on drug abuse and explains why it occurs across the classes seemingly indiscriminately. The deprivation that comes from not receiving the full measure of being loved and wanted and having all needs met, leads the sufferer to find a replacement. Leidloff suggests that the “high” found in heroin may be similar to the bliss of the in-utera and in-arms phases of a non-stressed environment. There is an antidote to the despair and loss that many may feel when reading this book. Leidloff makes a case that any deprivation can be healed by whatever gives serenity to a still-wanting adult. “Meditation can slow and stop the procession of thoughts. Sadly we have lost the sense of our rights as members of the human species. We do not look upon happiness as a birthright.”