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.

Animals as children, children as animals

A cat and dog, the two most popular animals ke...

I read a newspaper article recently that discussed the vast sums of money people are now spending on their pets. When once pets were put down with barely a thought if they developed a serious medical condition, their lives are now often extended by the kind of expensive surgery that humans have. They can  have hip or knee replacement operations, surgery for cancer and even drugs to treat separation anxiety. Many thousands of dollars are spent on these kinds of treatments.

Dogs and cats are also now commonly given human names. Once their monikers related to their appearance (Spot, Fluffy, Blackie) or were specific to their species (Rover, Fido and so on). Now there are Jeremys, Poppys, Ruperts and Emilys galore among the companion animal population.

Companion animals have become thought of for many people as ersatz family members and are treated as such: given clothes, special accessories, beds, gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Puppies attend ‘puppy preschool’ to be trained in compliant behaviour.

When pets are anthropomorphised in such a way, they are portrayed as babies or young children rather than as adult humans. Young children, for their part, are often portrayed as animalistic. Debates often appear on the web or in the letters columns of newspapers concerning what kinds of public spaces babies and young children should be allowed to occupy.

To give one example, a discussion in the online version of a newspaper last year concerned the issue of crying babies in aeroplanes. The discussion was sparked by the findings of a survey of Australian travellers which found that the vast majority voted for infants and young children and their parents to be segregated on overseas flights. An opinion piece in response to the survey argued that travellers should be tolerant of infant behaviour on planes and have empathy for their long-suffering parents. Hundreds of responses from readers to this piece were posted, many of which complained of the behaviour of children and criticised their parents for choosing to even bring them on the flight.

Other debates have concerned whether young children should be banned for cafes, and alternatively arguing that dogs should be allowed to accompany their owners to more cafes.

Underlying these debates are assumptions concerning the civility of these small humans, their inability to regulate their bodies and emotions, their propensity to annoy other patrons because they fail to measure up to adult standards of behaviour. The notion of the infant and young child as requiring taming like a wild animal is frequently expressed in such forums, and also in some texts on child-rearing. Child-rearing strategies are sometimes directly equated to those used to train domestic animals such as dogs. A popular Australian childcare book was entitled Toddler Taming, its title implying that very young children, like wild or uncontrolled animals, require ‘taming’.

Both animals and children are viewed as being closer to nature and further from the civilised body of adults as a consequence. This positive association of nature with the young child’s body draws upon the valued meanings of purity, authenticity and lack of artifice. However an alternative discourse of nature represents it as ‘bad’: as uncivilised, uncontrolled, wild and requiring domestication. The uncivilised young infant child is deemed to require training in bodily deportment to render them more fully human: manners, toilet training, sleep training, eating habits and other personal bodily habits are all taught as part of the civilising process (as outlined by Norbert Elias), to induct children into adult society and take on the status of the civilised adult.

It has been argued by some sociologists that in developed countries children are now considered more precious, more valuable, than at any other time of human history. Yet they also continue to be considered as inferior to adults, lacking appropriate decorum, spoiling adult spaces. When behaving well, they are adored — when misbehaving, they are reviled. They offend adult sensibilities concerning behaviour in public places. These reactions suggest a deep ambivalence towards young children in developed societies.

In the meantime, dogs and cats are also considered more precious and childlike, moving in their symbolic status from simply animals to beloved member of the family. Strangely, in some instances they have become viewed as more civilised, as more deserving of occupying adult space than are children.

Further reading:

Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Cambridge: Polity.

Chris Jenks (1996) Childhood. London: Routledge.

John Knight (ed) (2005) Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives of Human-Animal Intimacies. Berg.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Precious, pure, uncivilised, vulnerable: infant embodiment in the popular media. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8201.