What Babies Are Teaching Us About Violence

baby-01-smFrom:The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health  (APPPAH)

Author(s): David B Chamberlain


Babies are a source of knowledge about ourselves, a revelation of human nature, and babies can be "bellwethers." Bellwether is a term used by shepherds to designate the lead sheep, the one who wears a bell. I ask you to think about how babies can lead us and what they can teach us. This reverses the usual idea that they should follow and learn from us. But think about it: Would this violent world be better off if we tried to be more like them or if they tried to be more like us?

We do well to watch babies closely. They are like a mirror we can hold up to discover ourselves as fully sentient, fully conscious beings. Babies can also serve (if we let them) as an "Early Warning System" for humankind. This is hazardous duty for babies, teaching us, warning us of danger. In this respect, they are like the beautiful, singing canaries that coal miners once took into the bowels of the earth to warn them of deadly gasses. Babies have several important things to teach us.

Babies are teaching us the origins of violence

1. Babies are teaching us the origins of violence

Until recently, the prevailing scientific habit has been to treat the earliest period of human development--from conception to birth--as an insensitive, unconscious, period of physical growth. Babies are teaching us quite the opposite: they are highly sensitive, reactive, and impressionable participants throughout gestation and birth. However, this is still the minority view in both medicine and psychology.

The belief which has blocked understanding for a hundred years is the idea that no intelligence is possible and no learning or memory can occur until after birth, when the construction of the brain is more advanced. If this were true, it would follow that babies cannot care about anything, know anything, or learn anything--certainly nothing about love and violence. The false idea that prenates cannot learn is still given credence in academic circles, permeates the fundamental assumptions of developmental psychology, obstetrics and neonatology, still casts a shadow over nursing, midwifery, and childbirth education, and still confuses each new generation of pregnant parents. The mistaken belief that babies are not sentient is the main reason why scholars rarely look for the roots of violence in the earliest human experiences.

Potentially, babies have a lot to tell us and they are busy communicating with the psychologists, obstetricians, neonatologists, nurses, midwives, childbirth educators, and parents who will listen to them. Babies have been demonstrating awareness, vulnerability to influence, and intelligence (e.g., Verny & Kelly, 1986, Klaus & Klaus, 1985, Chamberlain, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1994). For two decades we have had proof that full-term newborns, prematurely born babies, and even babies in utero are capable of classical conditioning and habituation (e.g., Rovee-Collier & Lipsitt, 1982, Leader et al, 1982). More recently, with refinements in both learning theory and experimental methodology, newborns have demonstrated tactile, auditory, and olfactory learning, imitation learning, and verbal learning (e.g., Van de Carr, 1992, Busnel et al, 1992, Meltzoff & Moore, 1977, Ungerer et al, 1978, and Balogh & Porter, 1986). Recognition learning of musical passages, stories, voices, native language sounds and even children's rhymes have been shown at birth and during intra-uterine life (DeCasper & Fifer, 1980, Moon, Cooper, & Fifer, 1993). You may not be familiar with the latest in the series of important experiments by Anthony DeCasper and colleagues, where French mothers repeated a child's rhyme three times a day from week 33 to 37 gestational age. After four weeks of daily rhymes, babies recognized the rhyme they had heard but showed no recognition of a different rhyme (DeCasper et al, 1994).

Since the evidence for learning in utero and at birth is now overwhelming, we can assert that babies are capable of learning violence both before and during birth.