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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Newborn and the Auxiliary Ego

The anthropologist-author Ashley Montagu famously suggested that humans are characterized by “exterogestation”-- a continuation of prenatal development that takes at least the first three months after birth. Montagu held that the early development of human infants actually takes a year from conception before the baby has the minimal ability to cope with the environment. It might well be more appropriate for human pregnancy to last a year, but our large brains and heads, combined with the small pelvic opening needed for upright walking, would make it impossible for a baby to be born after a year’s gestation.

Because they are born at an immature stage of development, there are a lot of important things newborn humans cannot do for themselves. An obvious one is the manufacture of immunoglobulins by the immune system. Caregivers provide an auxiliary immune system that helps out until the baby’s own system begins to mature at about a year of age. Breastfeeding mothers make immunoglobulins that protect against infections that enter through the mouth and gut (gastrointestinal infections, polio, and so on), and these are passed on in their milk. Both breastfeeding and non breastfeeding caregivers also provide auxiliary immune functions by keeping the environment clean, watching what the baby puts into her mouth, making careful choices of clean food and drink for the child, and preventing exposure to contagious disease if possible. (In modern societies, this auxiliary immune function includes providing immunization against disease.)

In addition to their auxiliary immune functions, caregivers also provide the baby with an auxiliary ego. The term “ego” here refers not to pride or self-esteem, but to the ability to carry out reality functions and to deal effectively with the environment. Ego functions include movement, motor skills, learned behavior, problem-solving, and memory. The caregiver acts as an auxiliary ego when doing tasks the infant needs done but cannot do.

It’s obvious that auxiliary ego functions including picking up the young infant, feeding, and cleaning. But a less obvious auxiliary ego function is fostering the infant’s organization of behavior. Newborns have difficulty organizing the timing and sequencing of behavior, and they show this in their disturbed and broken sleep and in the awkwardness they often show in taking the nipple and feeding, sometimes even choking when the milk comes so fast that they cannot co-ordinate sucking and swallowing.

Difficulties in organizing behavior are increased when bright lights, loud noises, or unpredictable movements influence the process. A baby may be very hungry or tired but unable to sleep or eat unless the caregiver’s auxiliary ego functions help to organize the behavior.

How does the caregiver manage to help in organization? One way is to reduce the amount of disturbing sensory stimulation the baby is receiving. Dimming the lights, reducing the noise level, or going to a place where there are fewer people may all be helpful to the baby’s organization of behavior, and they are all things the baby cannot do alone—ego functions that demand more maturity than he or she has.

A second way to help the baby organize behavior like sleeping or eating is to provide the baby with some sensory stimulation that has a predictable rhythm and intensity, like rocking, singing, or patting. The framework of this rhythm helps give the baby a pattern to follow as he or she establishes the rhythm necessary to organize the needed behavior. Sleeping, for instance, is aided by a pattern of slow, regular breathing, and feeding by a regular sequence of sucking and swallowing at given intervals.

When a baby is really distressed and too disorganized to do the sleeping or feeding that is needed, a caregiver may help by an auxiliary ego function known as “overriding the baby’s tempo”. The adult begins with a fairly intense, rapid rhythm of stimulation like fast rocking or singing and then gradually slows and quiets the stimulation. The baby’s rhythm of crying, breathing, and moving slows and regularizes in response, until it is calm and organized enough to sleep or eat.

It’s all too common for parents or their advisers to forget auxiliary ego functions, or to reject them as ways to “spoil” a young baby. It’s often said that parents should start as they mean to go on and should train their babies to independence by demanding that they organize their own behavior from birth. But it’s pointless to demand something a baby is incapable of doing. A better foundation for early development, and a happier household, will result from accepting auxiliary ego functions as an essential part of nurture. Providing such help to very young babies no more ruins their independence than their milk diet will later make them unable to eat pizza.

I would speculate that parents and other caregivers can learn much from helping a young baby organize behavior that will be useful to them when they have older children. Two related tasks of caregivers are buffering (helping older children deal with the impact of environmental problems like bullying) and scaffolding (helping children learn by methods like breaking a problem into parts). Each of these is a type of auxiliary ego function that enables children to do what they can rather than be overwhelmed by difficulty. Parents may be able to do a better job on these tasks if they have learned from seeing the effect of auxiliary ego functions on their young babies. Being an auxiliary ego for the newborn is really starting parenting as it would be a good idea to go on.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for providing so many very interesting posts! I've read several today that I have really enjoyed.