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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, January 17, 2011

Practice Babies, Wet Nurses, Kibbutzim,and Boarder Babies: Are Humans "Omnicarous"?

A lot of concern is being expressed on various blogs about the history of “practice babies”, as described in Lisa Grunwald’s novel The Irresistible Henry House. Those babies, as probably everyone knows by now, were orphans who were cared for by “domestic science” students in colleges and who had many caregivers, in most cases before going to an adoptive family. The “practice babies” usually experienced multiple caregivers during the second half of their first year, a period of time that is associated with the development of attachment behaviors and which might be a time of vulnerability for emotional development.

However, there seems to be no obvious evidence that these children, who had also had multiple caregivers in their orphanages, were emotionally disturbed later in their lives. (Of course, it may well be that there is no such evidence because no one has looked for it, but it seems to me rather likely that adoptive parents would have complained if the babies they received were troubled, and that attention would have been called to the situation. Maybe not, though.)

On the basis of what’s usually said about attachment, we would expect those “practice babies” to be in a lot of trouble because of the absence of a small number of consistent attachment figures from their lives. But… could it be that our present emphasis on attachment is typical of Western culture in this period of history, and not a human universal as John Bowlby suggested it was? Humans are well known to be omnivorous and to thrive on a wide range of different diets, some of them pretty disgusting to those who are not familiar with them. Could they also be “omnicarous”? Forgive this made-up word, but I’m using it to mean capable of thriving on a variety of different infant care “diets”. Of course, human diets do have to contain certain essential components for survival and good health, and infant care “diets” may also have to contain certain essentials. But it may be that those essentials could be embedded in a wide variety of experiences-- not just the ones that we in industrialized Western countries regard as important.

A 1988 book by Valerie Fildes, Wet Nursing, describes a historically-common care method which is disturbing to many modern readers. Fildes traces the history of wet nursing, the practice of having a baby breast-fed by a woman other then the biological mother. Wet nurses received a salary for their services, those services being possible over a long period because human lactation does not have to be “freshened” by repeated pregnancy as is the case for cows, for example. Wet nurses have been used in many ways, sometimes living-in with wealthy families, and in the early 20th century being employed in hospitals to feed babies. Fildes also tells the fascinating and relevant story of the French bureaucracy associated with wet nursing in the 19th century. The demand for wet nurses was high in parts of France where women had skilled jobs in the textile industry and their husbands and families did not want to lose their income for a nursing period of perhaps two years. These families hired a wet nurse who was certified by the government; the wet nurse came to town, picked up the baby, and went back to her own village, where she might have 4 or 5 other infants and toddlers to care for, most of them being at least partially breast-fed. The babies’ families might or might not visit from time to time. Quite a few of these babies died while with the nurse, but the survivors would be brought home at about two years of age. Various sources record that they were frightened of the biological parents, treated them as if they were strangers, and strove to stay near the nurse. One feels terribly sorry for these terrified little people, forced into this abrupt separation-- but again, there seems to be no particular evidence that the thousands of children who went through this experience later showed unusual emotional or personality characteristics.

Much as I hate to quote Bruno Bettelheim, his book about kibbutz children, Children of the Dream, gives a relevant description of the lack of one-to-one child-to-adult social interaction in the original kibbutz culture. Although things are done differently today, one of the goals of the early kibbutzim was to break the emotional connection between children and parents and to make the children feel a primary loyalty to the group. The small number of overworked adult caregivers could not provide individual comfort or play, and children were expected to and did form their major emotional ties to others in their age group. But, again, no unusual number of mental health problems seems to have resulted from a situation which was far from ideal in terms of Bowlby’s theory of attachment.

One group of babies who may give us some insight into the essentials of the infant care “diet” is the “boarder babies”. These infants may be cared for for months in the hospital where they were born because legal tangles make their placement impossible. Informal observations suggest that these babies, at a time in their lives when they might be expected to have strong preferences for familiar people and maintain interactions with them, are instead friendly in a shallow way to everyone. They smile responsively but are not good at carrying on a longer interaction, and this is thought to be because everyone passing the room has stopped to smile and say hello, but then has left very quickly. The long-term effect of this are not yet known, but it’s possible that the boarder baby infant care “diet” does not contain all the essential emotional “nutrients”.

Our impulse to try to protect babies from unhappiness in every way is probably healthy and calculated to assure optimal development. But it’s possible that we have overdone the idea that good emotional development must follow a single pattern and involve the kinds of mother-child experience that we imagine to be “traditional” or even “natural”. To achieve a real understanding of the essential infant care emotional “diet”, we need to consider the whole range of ways in which humans have successfully reared children who grew to be good-enough humans.