Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with hi...

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with his wet nurse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My article entitled ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’ has been published in the latest issue of the journal Childhood. In the article I argue that the ways in which we think about and conceptualise infants’ bodies have been little explored, despite what is now a huge literature on the sociology and anthropology of the human body. Much of this literature addresses adults’ bodies; some of it looks at the embodiment of adolescents; a smaller proportion has discussed young children’s bodies. But very few academic articles or books have devoted specific attention to the youngest humans of all: those aged under two.

One exception is the American writer Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept, first published in 1975. In the book she describes her observations of child rearing practices of the Yequana, an indigenous tribe living in a jungle region of South America, with whom she lived for two and a half years. Liedloff found that these native Americans engaged in constant physical contact with their infants – they slept with their babies, breastfed them on demand for several years, and carried them everywhere in their arms or a sling, never putting them down on the ground until the infant began to crawl.

Another book-length analysis of infant-care practices is The Myth of Motherhood (1981). French historian Elizabeth Badinter details her research in this book into a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France when aristocratic and middle-class women commonly farmed out their newborn infants to wet nurses. These wet nurses were paid to breastfeed and care for the baby, in most cases for several years. While infants of the aristocracy were usually cared for by the wet nurse at home, those of the more populous middle-class were simply sent to live with the wet nurse’s home. In both cases, the wet nurse became the ersatz mother and the actual mothers had little or no contact with their infants. Although many of these infants died due to extreme neglect on the part of their wet nurses, who usually had many infants to feed and care for, the practice continued to be extremely fashionable among members of French society who could afford it.

These two books, vastly different in terms of the human societies and the practices of infant care they describe, are similarly instructive: in detailing these diametrically opposed approaches to infants and infant care, they highlight the contingent and varying ways in which societies and cultures think about and treat their very youngest members. The one, focusing on a contemporary non-developed society that had had little contact with western ideas and practices, and the other, on a privileged social stratum in a western society some centuries ago, demonstrate that notions of appropriate infant care and ways to treat the infant body are constructed via social, cultural, historical and political processes. Infant bodies are gestated and born, but in conditions that are always subject to change in terms of how these bodies are conceptualised and treated by others, which has implications for how infants themselves experience their bodies.

In my article I discuss these aspects of infant embodiment. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty (1962) on the phenomenology of embodiment, I make the point that infants’ bodies are always interembodied, or experienced in relation to others’ bodies. Indeed the care bestowed upon infants by their mothers extends the intersubjective and interembodied relationship that developed in the womb. I adopt the terminology used in a fascinating article by anthropologist Tahhan (2008) of ‘skinship’. This concept of ‘skinskip’ relates to the embodied closeness we feel to others’ bodies via acts of intimacy, physical proximity and caring that may involve blurring the boundaries between bodies and selfhoods. I think that it has great relevance to how caregivers relate to infants and goes some way to explaining the positive dimensions of concepts of infants’ bodies. Although she does not use the term, skinship is one aspect championed by Liedloff in The Continuum Concept in her describing of the benefits of constant physical contact with infants.

Via interembodiment, or skinship, carers’ and infants’ bodies interact, intermingle and are interdependent. This interdependence can be challenging and confronting in the context of contemporary western societies, where bodies are generally understood as ideally autonomous and separate from each other. While caring for an infant can be very pleasurable and sensual, it can also be extremely demanding and frustrating. It is socially unacceptable to admit this openly, but such a perspective finds expression in baby-care books such as those by Gina Ford, a British ex-nanny whose books on producing a ‘contented baby’ are bestsellers in the Anglophone world. Ford advises parents as to the importance of rigid scheduling of feeding, sleeping and even cuddling to ensure a ‘contented baby’ who does not wake its parents at night or encroach overly on their autonomy.

From this perspective the infant is positioned as an ‘uncivilised’, close to animalistic, being who requires much training to render its behaviour acceptable for entering human society. Establishing the autonomy and individuated embodiment of the infant is a priority, and the recommended bodily practices accord with this goal. The discourse of ‘training’ the infant, as if it were an animal, to conform to adults’ expectations and their ideals of autonomy and independence is common in these accounts.

As I contended in a previous post, there is often a blurring of categories between young children and animals. While companion animals such as dogs and cats have progressively become represented as child-substitutes and treated as if they are children, infants and young children in turn are often represented culturally as animalistic, not fit to occupy the ‘civilised’ spaces outside the domestic sphere such as the café, restaurant or aeroplane.

The relationship that we have with infants, therefore, can be paradoxical and ambivalent. At the same time as infants are viewed as increasingly precious, adorable and vulnerable, requiring and inspiring large amounts of caring and attention, they are also considered to be overly demanding, detracting from our own independence and right to autonomy.

References

Badinter, E. (1981) The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London: Souvenir Press.

Liedloff, J. (1975/1989) The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception (translated by C. Smith). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tahhan D (2008) Depth and space in sleep: intimacy, touch and the body in Japanese co-sleeping rituals. Body & Society, 14(4), 37—56.

One thought on “Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies

  1. Pingback: Academic Blogging | Research Tales

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