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Moms & Dads, Who Is The Boss Of You? The Force Of Culture On Birth And Parenting Choices

By Marcy Axness, PhD

By Marcy Axness, PhD (with contributions from Robbie Davis-Floyd, PhD)

Few things get me as riled up as people or companies that parlay the fragile hopes of well-meaning parents into a fat bottom line. Take, oh, for example, the Baby Einstein juggernaut— which, if you’ve been paying attention, was roundly disavowed by researchers who put so fine a point on it as to declare, “Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.” My contempt knows no bounds for an enterprise that leverages parents’ insecurities and fears (Will my child have what it takes to succeed in this ever more complicated world??) into a frantic market for baby-improvement “infotainment” that flies in the face of everything science knows about what infants and young children need for healthy development. But let’s not get sidetracked into a discussion of why “the more time a baby spends watching Baby Einstein the less like Einstein that child is likely to become.”

What I want to explore here is a more encompassing issue: The status-quo of today’s culture—media, medicine, education— exerts tremendous pressure on well-meaning parents to make choices that simply aren’t good for kids. This is where some knowledge can be a very empowering thing! The more we know about where our decision-making “blind spots” are, the more we can free ourselves from the prevailing fear-based group-think, and become capable of making positive choices that are in the true best interests of ourselves and our children.Let’s begin where it begins—how we ourselves are born, how we birth our children, and how we perceive the choices involved. Robbie Davis-Floyd, a cultural anthropologist specializing in birth, discovered something both subtle and powerful at work in our attitudes about the safety of non-medicalized births.

“I long ago gave up talking to women about giving birth at home. The idea that only hospitals and their technology can make birth safe so permeates this culture that there is simply no point in trying to convince anyone otherwise, even though it is completely untrue and there is plenty of scientific evidence out there to prove it.”

One of the pieces of evidence to which she refers is this classic: Back in 1974, two certified nurse-midwives were put in charge of all normal births in a small county hospital in California for 3 years in an experimental pilot program. During that time, the rates of obstetrical intervention (like C-sections) fell dramatically, the incidence of prematurity dropped by almost half, and the rate of neonatal deaths dropped from 23.9 per thousand to 10.3 per thousand—less than half of what it had been before the midwives arrived. At the end of the 3 years, fearing the competition, the local obstetricians fired the midwives and resumed charge of all births in this hospital. Within a few months, the rates returned to their former high levels.

A huge body of research suggests that routine interventions and procedures such as electronic fetal monitors, IVs, episiotomies, and pain relievers don’t lead to better outcomes and are indeed counterproductive in most normal births. For all of our technological prowess, the U.S. newborn and maternal health statistics are bleak. We come in 41st among industrialized nations in maternal mortality, and got a “D” on our prematurity report card from March of Dimes. Regarding the myriad unintended effects of birth interventions, researchers are currently exploring Pitocin induction and epidural anesthesia as possible factors in the complex causal tapestry involved in autism. Although the origins of this exponentially growing disorder remain a mystery, an important clue is that science has identified certain zones of “malfunctioning circuitry” in the brains of autistic people, including in the area that normally processes faces. Why is this? The developmental stages occurring during and after birth are a window of rapid reorganization of brain development, mediated by many hormones, most notably oxytocin, the so-called “hormone of love.” Several studies have found that autistic children show abnormalities in their oxytocin system.

Critical early circuitry-wiring of the orbito-frontal cortex—our social-emotional “success center”—occurs just after birth, when a complex hormonal cocktail orchestrates intricate exchanges between the mother and her newborn child, all organized around their face-to-face engagement with one another! In spite of much scientific data attesting to the neurobiological havoc that ensues for a newborn separated from its mother after birth, hospital protocols typically disturb the first hours of life, and too many newborns end up receiving a “faulty imprint” (I connect with things, not faces), which can prevent healthy synaptic formation in such social brain areas as that which processes faces—and indeed, human rapport.