Why won’t a newborn baby let their mother sleep? I think it is because the baby needs to know she is alive and well. And lying down, and sleep, are what people do when they are ill or dying.
So babies cry – with a loud, insistent, mind-disturbing cry – if you try to put them down, or sit down yourself too soon.
After a good feed, perhaps after a little doze, the new baby starts fussing. It needs changing and carrying around a bit to help to settle its tummy. With any luck, it is not the mother who has to do this; she can rest for a while and someone else take the baby. After a few short yells, squirms, explosions of wind, or perhaps more, at one end or the other, the baby settles and lies quietly in your arms or on your shoulder. The baby shows no sign of a tummy ache now, all seems well – but the moment you try to put him or down, or even to sit yourself while still holding or rocking, he or she will immediately wake up and yell. Nothing will help except standing up and walking around. Your hopes of answering emails or reading the paper while holding the baby in your arms have gone out of the window. The baby needs you upright and moving.
The baby will settle, eventually. Is it, perhaps, that the baby will only settle when he or she knows that the person looking after them is capable of being on their feet for quite a long time? A mother who does not have the stamina may be ill: she and the baby may need rescuing. This is not an intellectual kind of knowledge, but it would make sense that it could be hard-wired into us. Babies who let their mothers lie down too much in the early days after the birth may have had less chance of survival. Being exhausted, as all new parents tend to be in our culture, is not life-threatening. If there is nobody around who can literally stay on their feet with a newborn baby, both mother and baby might be at serious risk of dying.
I think it starts in the womb: babies kick in the womb when their mothers lie down and try to rest. Perhaps this is the baby ‘practising’ what it has to do when it is born, in the same way that they suck their thumbs, swallow and make breathing movements. I think it means that the instinct to cry when your mother is not moving is hardwired into us before we are born.
I suspect that throughout history, babies who cried like this at the first sign of exhaustion from a new mother had a better chance of survival than those which let their mothers rest too easily.
This cry brings help, both to the baby and to the mother. In the first six weeks the baby is totally dependent; but in the first six weeks, the mother’s life is at risk from puerperal fever or any of the complications of childbirth. The piercing scream that a newborn baby can give may either wake her up sufficiently for the baby to know she is alive and well enough, or bring help for the mother as well as the baby.
Of course, the downside is that the mother cannot sleep as much as she wants – nor can a new ‘hands-on’ father. And the mother needs to sleep to recover from the birth. The message from the baby is – GET HELP! Grandmothers or neighbours or some kind of help can be life-saving for new babies and their parents. The midwife or district nurse who checks up on the new mother’s health is part of the help, but new parents need more. I’ve always thought that mothers being left alone with their babies was a risky aspect of Western European/American culture. We are hardwired to be part of a mutually interdependent group, not isolated individuals.
What happens when we are left alone too much as babies or as new mothers, is another question entirely.