Physiologic parenting: Five gentle ways to support your baby’s evolutionary design

Sep 20, 2021

One of the hardest things about being a mama in the modern world is the feeling that you’re doing it “wrong”. There’s so much advice about what our babies “should” be doing. They “should” be sleeping through the night, they “should” be able to self-settle, they “should” be independent.

The problem with all those “shoulds”?

They’re based in cultural norms, not in physiologic norms. In other words, our communities have come to hold expectations of babies and young children that are completely out of alignment with how our little ones’ bodies are designed.

That’s why today’s blog post about “physiologic parenting” is something I get pretty fired up about! When we remember that our babies’ physiology is identical to the physiology of their ancient cave-baby ancestors, we can tune out the noise of the modern world and work with nature, work with our babies, and feel confident that when we do, we’re setting them up for lifelong health and wellbeing.

In today’s blog post I’m going to share two things that every parent needs to know about our children’s physiologic design (unfortunately, these things aren’t widely known in our communities). And then I’m going to share five gentle ways you can support your baby’s physiologic needs.

If you prefer to learn by listening rather than reading, you might like to check out the podcast version of this blog post, right here.

Oh, and mama – if you’re interested to learn about a gentle and natural way to care for your baby’s toileting needs while reducing the need for nappies or diapers (because spoiler alert: peeing and pooing into a toilet that’s strapped to them isn’t aligned with our babies’ physiologic design!), you’re gonna love my free 5-day training, ‘Get started with elimination communication (EC)’, running next week! You'll find all the details, along with your free workbook with all the resources you’ll need to get started with EC right away, right here.

Ok, now let’s jump into physiologic parenting.

Two things you need to know about your baby’s physiologic design

So here’s the thing, mama: you’re basically mothering a cave-baby.

Humans evolved to live as hunter-gatherers over a period of 175 thousand years. Although the world around us has changed rapidly in the last couple of thousand years (and especially in the last few hundred years) our bodies haven’t changed.

This means that we still need exactly the same things to thrive as our ancient ancestors – the same kinds of foods, the same kinds of movement, the same kinds of social supports. And our babies still need exactly the same things to grow and thrive.

There are two important things about our babies’ physiology that all parents need to know. And unfortunately, these things are not widely known in our communities.

The first is something called “exogestation”.

What on earth is that? Well, what if I told you that a human pregnancy actually lasts, not the nine months that most people think, but around 18 months?!

When human babies are born, they’re only about halfway through their gestation. They’ll continue their gestation outside the womb for a further nine months.[1] Gestation is considered complete when a baby can crawl away from their mama.

When human babies are born, they’re extremely developmentally immature compared to other mammals. For example, newborn horses can run within hours of birth, whereas human babies aren’t mobile for many months after they’re born.

Why are human babies are born so immature? This relates to our unique physiologic design as humans. As our ancestors evolved to stand on two legs, our pelvises had to become smaller to accommodate that weight. At the same time, our ancestors' brains were becoming bigger. That meant that our babies had to be born at an earlier stage of maturity before their brains became too big to pass through our narrower pelvises.[2] So immaturity at birth is a cost of our cleverness and our ability to walk around.

Exogestation has very real implications for how our babies need to be parented. Because they’re born at such an early stage in their development, they need particular things from their caregivers to continue to grow and develop outside the womb. They need us to mimic the experience of being inside the womb as much as possible.

The second thing we need to know about our babies’ physiology is the idea of the “mother-baby dyad”.

Being a “dyad” means that mothers and babies are two separate organisms that function best together. So, mama, even though your baby is in a different body to you, for all intents and purposes they remain part of your body for at least the first nine or so months of life (and to a lesser but still significant extent, for the first three years of life).

This is because babies aren’t able to regulate their physiology on their own. They rely on close physical proximity to their caregiver, and especially their mother, to regulate their circulatory system, their respiratory system, their temperature, their nervous system, their brainwave patterns – their whole physiology.

And the thing is, babies know this.

We, as adults in a modern world obsessed with “independence,” might have forgotten the fact of the mother-baby dyad. But babies know that they rely on physical proximity to their mamas for their very survival, and that’s why they’ll cry when you try to put them down. They're signalling their very real need for physical closeness to their caregiver.

Five gentle ways you can support your baby’s physiologic design

When we understand these two things about our babies’ physiologic design – exogestation and the mother-baby dyad – it’s a lot easier to understand our infants’ needs, and why they behave in the way they do. 

So in the rest of this post I’m going to share five gentle ways you can support the physiologic needs of your little cave-baby.

 

1. Babies are designed to sleep next to their mothers 

Sleeping in close physical proximity to their mamas supports our babies’ physiology in a few ways. First, as we’ve already talked about, babies rely on being physically close to their mama to be able to regulate their entire physiology. Research shows that infants who sleep next to their mamas have healthier respiration, heart rate, temperature and brainwave patterns, and reduced stress levels.[3] They’re also at lower risk of SIDS because babies who sleep alone in a cot or crib are more likely to drop into too deep a level of sleep that they’re unable to rouse themselves from.

Mamas who co-sleep with their babies also get more sleep overall[5] (unsurprising, because co-sleeping mamas don’t have to get out of bed at every. single. wakeup).

Co-sleeping supports breastfeeding, and mamas who co-sleep with their babies are more likely to exclusively breastfeed for longer than mothers who don’t co-sleep.[6]

Now, of course, when I talk about co-sleeping I’m talking about safe co-sleeping, and it’s important to be aware of the factors that can make co-sleeping unsafe. For example, our ancestors didn’t evolve to sleep with soft pillows and lots of blankets, so we need to take extra precautions to keep our modern babies safe while co-sleeping. Check out this article to learn about the ‘Safe Sleep 7’.

2. Babies are designed to be worn or held by their caregivers

For all the same reasons that they’re designed to co-sleep next to their mamas, young infants are also designed to be mostly carried or worn by their caregivers. In hunter-gather societies, babies spend a lot of their time attached to their mother or another caregiver by a fabric baby wrap. For our ancestors, this made sense in terms of both safety and practicality – babies attached to their mamas were kept safe from predators, while mama was able to go about her daily work.

But baby-wearing offers benefits beyond simple safety and convenience. As we’ve already talked about, the close physical proximity to their caregiver that baby-wearing allows helps babies to regulate their physiology. Baby-wearing also allows for easy skin-to-skin contact between mama and baby, which promotes the release of oxytocin, the hormone of love. Higher levels of oxytocin in both mother and baby mean reduced stress and ‘fussiness’, increased feelings of love and happiness, and increased bonding.

And research bears this out. One study found that mamas who used a baby carrier were more responsive to their infants at 3.5 months, and their babies were more securely attached to their mothers at 13 months old, than mamas who didn’t use a baby carrier.[7] 

For a super detailed breakdown of the science of baby-wearing, check out this blog post.

3. Babies are designed to feed from the breast 

Babies are designed to breastfeed. Now this is already a long blog post and breastfeeding is a HUGE subject, so in this post, I’m going to limit myself to just one sentence on this particular aspect of physiologic parenting.

Breastfeeding doesn't just meet our babies' nutritional needs[8] - it also supports them with everything from the development of their immune systems,[9] to the regulation of their nervous systems,[10] to the physical development of their mouths and skulls.[11]

The Australian Breastfeeding Association is a great source of information about breastfeeding. 

4. Babies are designed for responsive caregiving 

Our babies are hardwired for connection. They literally grow their brains through their interactions with us, their caregivers.

The basic architecture of your baby’s brain is built through experiences, and one of the most important experiences for brain development is the social interaction between children and their caregivers.[12]

What this means is that when you spend time with your baby gazing, smiling, playing and laughing, you’re not just having a sweet, fun moment with your baby – you’re also literally building neural pathways that optimally wire your baby’s brain.

We also know that empathetic, responsive parenting is essential for building a healthy, secure attachment in your child. A child with a secure attachment has learnt to trust that their caregiver will be consistently available and responsive to their needs. This secure attachment is hugely important for our little ones’ lifelong wellbeing – it provides them with a sense of safety and security, helps them to regulate their emotions, and offers a secure base from which to explore. It’s also protective against long-term psychological and health problems – we know that children with insecure attachments are more likely to develop such issues later in life.[13]

And how do you build a secure attachment with your child?

By responding to their needs.

So children need empathetic, responsive parenting to literally grow their brains and to set them up for long-term health and wellbeing. 

5. Babies are designed to pee and poo in a receptacle that isn’t attached to them 

This last one might surprise you – babies are designed to wee and poo into a receptacle that isn’t attached to them. In other words, nappies/diapers aren’t actually aligned with our babies’ physiologic design!

Our physiologic norm as humans, and the healthiest ideal, is for babies to wee and poo in a receptacle that isn’t attached to them, and to learn essential lifelong skills about personal hygiene from as soon as they’re capable.

Now, contrary to popular belief, babies are capable of controlling their sphincters from birth, of knowing when they need to wee or poo, and of communicating this to their caregiver (just as they’re capable of communicating other needs such as hunger or tiredness).

In fact, like all animals, babies have a strong instinct not wee or poo on themselves or their caregivers - this is a survival instinct to protect themselves and their communities from disease.

And what’s more, babies prefer not to soil themselves. If this sounds weird to you, first recall that babies are sentient and conscious, and then think about how you would prefer to eliminate if you suddenly couldn’t speak or move your own body - to have someone deliberately let you soil yourself, or to have someone try to learn your ways of communicating your need to eliminate and then to help you do so in a hygienic place? Which would feel more respectful and honouring of you as a person?

If you haven’t heard of something called Elimination Communication (or EC), I can’t WAIT to share all about this beautiful practice with you! Every time I talk about this I get such a strong response from mamas wanting to learn more. So for that reason, I’ve got a 5-day video series starting next week called ‘Get started with elimination communication’. My goal is to make the whole thing easy to understand, and easy to get started right away with your bub.

If you’re interested, mama, here’s how it’s going to work. Each day next week at 1 pm Sydney time, I’m going to jump on Instagram Live to give you a quick, bite-sized training with easy, actionable steps you can take to get started with EC right away (I know many of you are in different timezones so don’t stress if that’s you, you can always watch the lives later). I’ve also got a free workbook to help you out so you don’t need to worry about taking notes or anything – you can find that right here.

So if you’re keen to learn about how EC works and to get started practicing it with your bub straight away (less dirty nappies – yay!), be sure to check that out.

 

Let’s wrap it up

Wow, that was a lot of information mama, so let’s recap the things we’ve covered in today’s post.

Physiological parenting is an approach to parenting that’s aligned with our children’s physiologic design. We can look to our little ones’ physiology to understand their needs, and to cut through the incorrect and often damaging information that gets thrown our way as mamas.

When we understand exogestation and the mother-baby dyad, it suddenly becomes so much clearer why our babies behave in the way they do. And this is incredibly freeing, because we no longer have to work against nature and try to get our babies to do things that aren’t physiologically appropriate for them.

We can work with nature, work with our babies, and know that when we’re doing so we’re setting them up for lifelong health and wellbeing.

And what were those five things we can do as parents to support our little ones’ physiology? Let’s run through them once more:

  • Babies are designed to sleep next to their mothers
  • Babies are designed to be worn or held by their caregivers
  • Babies are designed to feed from the breast
  • Babies are designed for responsive caregiving
  • Babies are designed to pee and poo in a receptacle that isn’t attached to them (and you can learn all about that by grabbing your free workbook here, and joining me over on Instagram for my free training next week)

 

Until next time, stay wild, mamas!

Jess xx

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