I already know that you can learn a lot from chickens about giving birth. This summer, I had another profound birth-mothering experience with one of our chickens after she hatched her first baby. During the last several days of incubation, mothers hens “talk” to their babies a lot through the eggshells and the babies respond. It is part of how they get to know each other and imprint before hatching. Then, after baby hatches, the mother hen continues to talk and cluck to the baby in a reassuring manner—she calls to the babies when separated and she calls a special call when there is something good to eat and she clucks softly and reassuringly at bedtime as she snuggles them all beneath her. There is a specific type of “soothing” noise they make to stressed or lost babies and a specific sort of excited sound they make to let the babies know something good is happening. There are also distressed sound that means, “run to me now, there might be danger!”
The baby chick who tried desperately to get to a mama who would talk to it (this mama, interestingly, is the same one I wrote about in the Birth Lessons from a Chicken essay several years prior).
We had three broody chickens at the time, each in their own little separate nest box in the broody coop. One of the hens had hatched a baby already and was in the neighboring box. The inexperienced mama hen hatched her baby and she would not talk to it. The baby freaked out. It flailed, it freaked, it stumbled all around. It dragged its tiny little wet, not-even-able-to-walk body to the very corner of the nest box as far away from the mother as possible. It flung itself into the wall where it could hear the neighboring mother clucking to her baby. The baby peeped more frantically and loudly than I’ve ever heard a chick cry out before, it sounded like it was in grave distress and danger. We moved it back to its mother and she fluffed out her wings around it just like she was supposed to do and I thought all would be all right, but…silence. The mother did not talk. Her baby desperately struggled out from under her, still not able to walk, still wet, and flung itself back into the corner, sinking down under the straw, crying piteously. Silence from the mother.
Talk to your baby, we pleaded. Your baby needs to hear you. Please talk to your baby. Silence. The baby squished down on the wire slats, pressed into the corner of the box, screaming at the top of its chick-lungs. The mother in the next box became distressed as well, calling back to the baby more and more loudly. The chick became more frenzied and flopping. The baby in the next box picked up on the fear and began peeping loudly as well. Still, the new mother sat silently and unresponsive. Talk to your baby. We left her alone, thinking her instincts would kick in, but as time passed and we could hear the chick screaming from all the way across the yard, we went back to interfere. We tried twice more to put it back under her and again the same routine repeated. We became concerned the baby would die if its level of distress continued, particularly with forcing itself down and under the straw and into the wire, so we made the decision to remove it and put it in “foster care” with the other, responsive mother. We thought she might attack it, since it wasn’t her own hatchling and because it was several days behind her own baby, but she snuggled it right up, clucking in reassurance, and it went to sleep, the next morning it was fluffy and quiet and perfectly happy with its new mother. The red hen continued to sit, silent, and unresponsive, and of course I felt horrible for stealing her baby and giving it to someone else after she’d worked so hard to hatch it. Luckily for the mental health of all involved, she successfully hatched one more baby and did take care of it, albeit still quite silently compared to all other mama hens we’ve experienced.
What does this have to do with birth?
Babies are primed to hear their mothers’ voices after birth. They expect to be snuggled into the maternal nest. Mammal babies expect to receive a warm breast and to hear comforting words in their own language. I feel fortunate that my own birth pause was respected after all my children’s births and that each baby felt only my hands and heard my first for their first minutes of life. I talked to all my babies, soothingly and lovingly, and then brought them to my breast. My midwife and the other people around me did not interfere with these sacred, timeless moments of introduction.
It has been several years now, but I’ve worked with a couple of mothers for breastfeeding help postpartum who were unwilling or unable to talk to their babies, even with direct encouragement to do so. Baby was expecting mother’s voice and mother was unable to give it. Not surprisingly to me, these mothers experienced significant difficulty in getting baby to breast. I believe baby is expecting mother’s voice as a guide to the breast as much as it is expecting the smell of her and the sound of her heartbeat. Baby is not expecting multiple, strange voices from nurses (or even helpful breastfeeding helpers like me!). Baby is not expecting gloved hands. Baby is not expecting bright lights or loud noises. Baby is most definitely not expecting to be “helped” to the breast and “shoved” on as many mothers describe experiencing after their births. In Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple, the author emphasizes that what motherbaby pairs need most to successfully breastfeed is time alone to get to know each other. Mother and baby need to explore each other’s bodies and to listen to each other. She points out that with many people in the room, even well-meaning people, mothers have trouble getting to know their babies and getting babies to breastfeed. She says the most helpful strategy to supporting early breastfeeding is to get out of the way and let mother talk to her baby, smell her baby, touch her baby, meet her baby, and learn about her baby.
The non-communicative mother and her second baby, who was okay without much talking.
What are we really imprinting upon many newborns at birth in our culture?
As Sister MorningStar writes in her article The Newborn Imprint in Midwifery Today issue 104, Winter 2012…
If you have had the misfortune, as nearly all of us who can read and write have had, to see a baby born, perhaps pulled out, under bright lights with glaring eyes and loud noises of all sorts, in a setting that smells like nothing human, with a mother shocked and teary and scared; if you have witnessed or performed touch that can only be described as brutal and cruel in any other setting…
Every baby born deserves uninterrupted, undisturbed contact with her mother in the environment the mother has nested by her own instinctual nature to create. Any movement we make to enter that inner and external womb must be acknowledged as disturbing and violating to what nature is protecting. We do not know the long-term effects of such disturbance. We cannot consider too seriously a decision to disturb a newborn by touch, sound, light, smell and taste that is different and beyond what the mother is naturally and instinctually providing. Even facilitating is often unnecessary if the motherbaby are given space and time to explore and relate to one another and the life-altering experience they just survived. They both have been turned inside out, one from the other, and the moment to face that seemingly impossible feat cannot be rushed without compromise. We have no right to compromise either a mother or a baby.
I am deliberately leaving out the issue of life-saving because it has become the license for full-scale abuse to every baby born… [emphasis mine]
If mother has been taken to an operating room to give birth, or if mother is for any reason overwhelmed, exhausted, scared, vulnerable, hurt, and traumatized, she may have great difficulty in talking to her baby. If the room is full of people, baby may have difficult hearing her mother’s voice and feeling her welcoming touch. If baby is greeted by a bright light and masked face instead of her mother’s voice, baby may cry loudly in distress and eventually “shut down” into sleep rather than immediately to breastfeeding.
What can we do?
Beyond the obvious answers in carefully choosing place of birth and birth attendant, we can talk to the babies. If birth has been long, scary, or otherwise difficult, talk to the baby. If baby needs immediate care after birth, try as hard as humanly possible to have that care take place on mother’s chest and in reach of mother’s voice. If baby has to be separated from mother, talk to the baby. Call out to him. If mother can’t call out to the baby, father can talk to the baby. If father is unable, doula or midwife or nurse can talk to the baby. Welcome her to the world, reassure her that she is safe and all will be well. Speak gently and soothingly and kindly, never forgetting that this is a new person’s introduction to the world and to life. Our first and deepest impulse is connection. Before Descartes could articulate his thoughts on philosophy, he reached out his hand for his mother. I have learned a lot about the fundamental truth of relatedness through my own experiences as a mother. Relationship is our first and deepest urge and is vital to survival. The infant’s first instinct is to connect with others. Before an infant can verbalize or mobilize, she reaches out to her mother. Mothering is a profoundly physical experience. The mother’s body is the baby’s “habitat” in pregnancy and for many months following birth. Through the mother’s body, the baby learns to interpret and to relate to the rest of the world and it is to the mother’s body that she returns for safety, nurturance, and peace. Birth and breastfeeding exist on a continuum, with mother’s chest becoming baby’s new “home” after having lived in her body for nine months. These thoroughly embodied experiences of the act of giving life and in creating someone else’s life and relationship to the world are profoundly meaningful experiences and the transition from internal connection to external connection, must be vigorously protected and deeply respected.
“Birth should not be a celebration of separation, but rather a reuniting of mother and baby, who joins her for an external connection.” –Barbara Latterner, in New Lives
“No mammal on this planet separates the newborn from its mother at birth except the human animal. No mammal on this planet denies the breast of the newborn except the human.” –James Prescott (neuropsychologist quoted in The Art of Conscious Parenting)
”A woman’s confidence and ability to give birth and to care for her baby are enhanced or diminished by every person who gives her care, and by the environment in which she gives birth…Every women should have the opportunity to give birth as she wishes in an environment in which she feels nurtured and secure, and her emotional well-being, privacy, and personal preferences are respected.” –Coalition for Improving Maternity Services (CIMS)”