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Babies Remember Birth

What do you see when you look at a newborn baby, bright-eyed, gazing straight at you? Is there really a person there? Silently frowning or beet-red with rage, can this baby think and feel? For its small size, a newborn makes a powerful, compelling noise, but is it actually saying anything?

Until recently, there were many theories about newborns but few known facts. For uncounted centuries, infants have been separated from the rest of us by a veil of ignorance. As close as we have been to them, we did not know how amazing they are. Common wisdom about babies was based on the obvious limitations of their size, weight and muscle power.

Consequently, babies were described as sometimes adorable but incapable, subhuman, pre-human, dull and senseless, and treated as such. Twentieth-century science has held that infant cries were only “random” sounds, their smiles only “gas,” and their expressions of pain simply “reflexes.” Misinformation about the newborn has made parenthood more difficult and infancy more miserable.

A brighter future has been dawning for infants. In the last 35 years, research on the newborn has flourished. An unprecedented combination of interest in infants, investment of large sums of public and private money, and innovative methods of study has resulted in new information, much of it surprising. Contributions to our widening knowledge of the newborn come from diverse fields of science from embryology to psychology.

Leading researchers now sing the praises of infants. Harvard’s Berry Brazelton calls them “talented”; Hanus Papousek, a German pioneer in infant studies, calls them “precocious”; famed pediatrician Marshall Klaus calls them “amazing.” Professor T.G.R. Bower, one of the most innovative of all infant researchers, declares that newborns are “extremely competent” in perception, learning and communication.

Babies have come of age in the 20th century. Because so much has been discovered and momentum is still building, I think this will prove to be the century of the newborn, the time when we finally reach a full and factual knowledge of who they are. At the beginning of the last century, only a handful of scientific papers about infants could be counted worldwide. By mid-century, almost 500 could be cited. In the 1960s and 1970s, serious reviews of this literature suddenly had to cover at least 2,000 books and papers. This information explosion continues. Infants have been measured inside and out, filmed with cameras permitting analysis down to microseconds, watched for hours on end, and tested in clever experiments. Results show that they pick up information constantly and learn from their experiences much as we do.

One of the exciting aspects of this new knowledge is the verification of infant abilities at earlier and earlier ages. Timetables estimating the ages at which particular talents are expected to appear have had to be revised again and again, bringing them closer to birth. Many abilities are innate and adult-like, surprising investigators and ruining theories. A fundamental rule of developmental psychology—that all complex behaviors must start as simple behaviors and develop gradually—has become obsolete. Surprisingly, many behaviors start out complex. The truth is, much of what we have traditionally believed about babies is false. We have misunderstood and underestimated their abilities. They are not simple beings but complex and ageless, small creatures with unexpectedly large thoughts.

Babies know more than they were supposed to know. After only minutes of repeated exposure to its mother’s face after birth, a baby can pick her out from a gallery of photos. Babies recognize the gender of other babies, even when cross-dressed, provided they are moving—something adults cannot do. They are mentally curious and eager to learn. Consider how smoothly the senses are coordinated at birth: eyes turn with the head in the direction of a sound; hands go up to protect eyes from bright light; the first time at the breast, the baby knows how to suckle and breathe in perfect synchrony; they shriek and pull away from a heel lance.

The territory of life before birth has also been charted as never before. Through the wizardry of the scanning electron microscope, fiber optics and special lenses, ultrasound imaging, and other measuring devices and laboratory techniques, we now have a comprehensive picture of development of all parts of the physical system before birth. These discoveries have added to our understanding of the baby’s many talents.

Neuroscientists have discovered the timetable for development of the entire nervous system. For example, studies show that the sense of taste begins functioning around 14 weeks after conception, and the sense of hearing around 20 weeks. After only eight weeks of gestation, stroking the baby’s cheeks with a fine hair produces consistent reactions indicating that tactile sensitivity has already been established. During gestation, all the structures are set in place that will enable the newborn to use the sense of smell as well as any adult. Similar preparations are made for use of a wide range of visual talents. Learning before birth has even been demonstrated in many experiments.

A host of scientific discoveries provides formal verification of what many parents and grandparents have known all along: Newborns are real persons. Parental enthusiasm about newborn abilities used to be dismissed as vanity, bias or hallucination. Now science confirms that infants are social beings who can form close relationships, express themselves forcefully, exhibit preferences, and begin influencing people from the start. They are capable of integrating complex information from many sources and, with a little help from their friends, begin regulating themselves and their environment.

Myths about Newborns

1. Babies Don’t Feel

Some nurses and doctors are still telling parents that babies don’t really feel things—that they will not suffer during medical procedures, or miss their mothers if taken away to a nursery. Anesthetics have not been considered necessary for infants undergoing surgery. Hospital delivery rooms, obstetrical instruments, and medical routines were all designed before babies were thought to have senses, and thus with no regard for babies’ comfort. Rooms are frigid, lights blinding, surfaces hard and flat, the atmosphere noisy, the handling of newborns too upsetting. Newborns are routinely traumatized and punctured.

Generation after generation, an unlucky majority of American male babies have been subjected to circumcision for dubious medical, religious, cultural, and cosmetic reasons. I can only assume that parents have tolerated this in the mistaken belief that the baby will not know he is being tortured. He will.

Babies considered unable to feel are easily victimized; they become non-persons with minimal rights. An earlier, more deadly, form of this view provided justification for infanticide (mostly female), practiced widely through most of human history. In modern times child abuse, the once-secret violence of parents, is exposed to public view. Infants may be the last large category of persons to be fundamentally misunderstood, discriminated against and abused.

In 1975 French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer called for a new approach in Birth Without Violence. His colleagues denied the need for change and publicly recited the myth that babies do not really feel or care. The newly discovered truth is that newborn babies have all their senses and make use of them just as the rest of us do. Their cries of pain are authentic. Babies are not unfeeling; it is we who have been unfeeling.

2. Very Poor Brains

Probably the most damaging myths about newborns are those about their brains. Reasoning from the gross anatomy of the brain at birth, scientists concluded that it was “primitive” and poorly developed. And, because it was only about onequarter of its eventual weight and volume, it was incapable of “higher” functions of thinking, meaning, and memory.

For a hundred years this assumption has governed both medicine and psychology, supporting abuses in obstetrics and pediatrics that are accepted as a normal part of birth. Without a brain, babies could have no experiences, accumulate no history, possess no self-consciousness or intelligence— in effect, could not really be present. This myth has artificially delayed the beginning of active parenthood and prevented public recognition that newborns are persons. The reasoning is this: no brain, no person; no person, no need for parenting.

In retrospect, brain experts made one of the classic errors of science by dissecting the brain to find out how it works. The problem is that the brain works properly only if it is whole. Separate parts are not the system. Most serious was the error of severing the brain from its connections with two other systems, the endocrine and immune systems. Medicine officially divided the territory into three different specialties: neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology. Current research shows that all three are elegantly linked in one fluid central intelligence system.

That the whole brain is more than its parts is illustrated by a debate that has lasted for decades over the myelin sheathing that insulates nerve fibers. I ran into this wall personally when I started to tell colleagues about the birth memories my clients were reporting. Their immediate reaction was that such memories were impossible because the myelination of nerve tracks was not complete at birth and therefore signals could not flow properly through the nervous system. The truth is that myelination begins in some places only a few weeks after conception but is not completed until adolescence. It is no measure of what a baby’s brain can do.

3. Assembly-Line Brain

Another basic misunderstanding about the infant brain was that it was like an engine on an assembly line, not expected to work until the last part was installed. Compounding this error was a prejudice that the parts of the brain formed first were “primitive” and less valuable, while those added last were much more sophisticated and important. A half-truth at best, this theory has kept scientists and parents alike from appreciating intelligence before birth and has justified inhumane practices at birth. If the sophisticated, “advanced” parts of the brain were not yet developed, the reasoning went, the baby could not have meaningful experiences. Memory and learning were out of the question.

The cerebral cortex, the symmetrical left- and right-brain structures lying at the top of the skull, is formed last and does have those special convolutions, the latest evolutionary wrinkles that give humans a competitive edge over other creatures. However, it was false to conclude that the cortex was not working until finished and that the rest of the brain could not engage in complex activity. Long before the completion of the cortex, complex systems for breathing, sleeping, waking, crying, spatial orientation, and movement are already functioning. The senses of taste, touch, smell and hearing are fully operative and coordinated. Even vision is advanced at birth, although the visual portion of the cortex is not yet fully developed.

4. Babies Can’t Think

Until recently, brain experts generally agreed that the newborn, like the beloved storybook character Winnie the Pooh, was “a bear of little brain.” A recent book on the nature of the child by a noted Harvard psychologist says the cortex of the young infant resembles that of an adult rat!

With such poor equipment, how could a newborn think? Academic psychologists use big words to deny infant mental activity: pre-symbolic, pre-representational, pre-reflective. In other words, babies are without words and cannot think. This relates to another myth— that in order to think, you must have language. Recent investigations have shown that babies do a lot of thinking, with or without language. You will see evidence of this thinking when your newborn purposefully reaches out, gives an inquisitive look, frowns (or screams) in protest, gurgles in satisfaction, or gasps in excitement. Newborns also listen intently to their mothers reading stories and prefer to hear again those heard weeks before birth. And note this: They listen attentively as long as mother reads forward, but will stop listening as soon as she reads backward (nonsense)—another indication of good thinking.

More tellingly, infants are great dreamers, according to studies of brain waves. They dream much more than you and I do. Meticulous observation by scientists of infant body movements and facial expressions during dreaming shows that they act and look just like adults do when dreaming. How could they dream without thinking?