This I Believe

Tanya - Northampton, Massachusetts
Entered on October 22, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in instinct.

When I was pregnant my husband and I took a childbirth class. One of the expectant fathers in the class worked in a primate lab at the local university. He said that whenever a monkey was pregnant the staff would try to observe the monkey giving birth. But they never did. The monkey would wait until late at night, when no human was present, to birth to her baby.

I remember thinking that this was an interesting piece of trivia, but that it certainly had nothing to do with me. When I contemplated motherhood, instinct didn’t factor into the equation at all. After all, I had a brain that could figure complicated things out. I had a college degree. I had the Internet! And my body generally did what my mind told it to do.

But from the moment my son entered the world I came to understand that we are mammals. Sophisticated mammals, but mammals nonetheless.

A few months ago I attended a talk given by Dr. Nils Bergman, who pioneered the concept of “kangaroo care.” He showed a series of pictures, side by side, of a human newborn and a newborn puppy. Both human and dog rooted, smelled, and kicked their way over to find the breast.

Such examples are endless. Simply holding a babies skin-to-skin regulates their oxygen levels, heart rate, temperature, and blood sugars. Most mothers, across cultures, touch their newborn babies for the first time in the same manner. Mothers’ chests actually heat up when their babies are placed on them to keep them warm.

Meredith Small, in one of my favorite books, Our Babies, Ourselves, writes “…Scientific and medical advisors, counselors, and researchers seem to miss the fact that culture, in the form of the medical establishment, has intervened in human biology. For millions of years the human female animal gave birth and held that baby to her chest. She carried the baby close and helped it find the nipple….In all cultures except Western culture, the process is the same today.”

A few years ago I gave a talk about breastfeeding to a class of undergraduate nutrition students. One of them asked me “What technological advances have been made in breastfeeding recently?” The question is a wonderful illustration our culture’s hierarchy: nature is nice, but technology is the real deal. Of course, there is no question technology has saved countless mothers and babies. But when nature designs a system, and equips us with instincts to use it, I believe that we should pay attention.

What the monkeys in the primate lab know, which I think too many of us have forgotten, is that instinct – such as the instinct to feel safe when birthing – matters. These bits of hard-wiring may seem quaint, outdated, or even dangerous, but they are nature’s technology, and they too have protected our babies and ourselves for thousands of years.

I believe that we have instincts, and we ignore them at our peril.