A joey stays in his pouch until his “exterior gestation” is complete and he is able to move away from his mother on his own. Like a joey, human infants are also born immature. In fact, human infants actually remain helpless longer than infants of any other species and, like some marsupials, must also go through a distinct period of gestation outside of the womb.
Although birth may be seen as a separation of mother and infant, babies need anything but separation. Nature intended that they be held on their mother’s bodies after birth until they complete their gestation out of the womb. This period of exterior gestation needs to be respected not just as a sentimental matter, but as one that has a profound and major impact on an infant’s physical, emotional, and psychological development.
In his book Touching, The Human Significance of the Skin, Dr. Ashley Montagu writes of the importance of the mother-baby relationship after the baby has already been born. He describes the relationship between the two as “naturally designed to become even more intensive and interoperative after birth” than while the baby was gestating or growing in the womb (Montagu, 1988, 75).
“Birth no more constitutes the beginning of the life of the individual than it does the end of gestation. Birth represents a complex and highly important series of functional changes which serve to prepare the newborn for the passage across the bridge between gestation within the womb and gestation continued out of the womb.” (Montagu, 1986, 57)
Human babies are born early out of necessity. Nurturing the baby in a manner that mimics the intimacy of pregnancy as closely as possible until this exterior gestation is complete offers the baby the optimal environment for his immature systems. This means the baby should be in constant proximity to her mother, either in her mother’s arms or worn on her mother’s body with a piece of cloth or another baby carrier.
This sweet little one is napping in her stroller. Though she is out in the fresh air and very warm, it concerning that many babies are now spending most of their day alone in containers.
Despite the fact that mothers carry their babies in the majority of the world, more and more tiny babies are spending most of their days alone in plastic containers, bouncy seats, and strollers and spending their nights alone in bassinets and cribs, deprived of their mother’s’ touch and presence. Nature didn’t intend it to be this way. A mother and her infant are hard-wired to expect unity, and for that unity to continue after birth.
“Although intrauterine experiences can exert influence on the infant’s subsequent development, the experiences it has during the ten months or so after birth are of greater experience...a continuing symbiotic relation between mother and child designed to endure an unbroken continuum until the infant’s brain weight has more than doubled.” (Walsh).
The human infant is born 266 days from conception. The rapid growth takes place during the final three months in the womb. Infants are born before they have fully matured, and their brains finish growing outside the womb. Significant brain growth and standing up on two feet to get around (and subsequently a rearrangement and narrowing of the pelvis) cost humans decreased maturity at birth (Trevathan, 144). The usual pattern of completing half the adult brain size before birth was not possible. The baby’s body was too large and so was her head. The combination of increased brain size and a mother’s narrower pelvic outlet (due to standing), caused a major change in human’s gestation length. Because of this, significant brain growth, behavioral development, and maturation of systems are all delayed until after birth.
When a baby is born she needs to breathe on her own, provide oxygen and nutrients to her entire body, and adjust her gastrointestinal system to the new function of ingesting, digesting, and eliminating. She will use her nervous system to find out about her environment and her place in it. Yet, human physiology does not direct all of its own functions. It is interdependent. The regulatory information acquired by infants from their mothers also impacts cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and hormone levels. In her book The Vital Touch, Dr. Heller describes how a baby uses her mother to help regulate her own systems. She explains,
“While in contact with the mother, the infant’s systems are kept at a regular tempo. But apart, the newborn must work doubly hard to maintain physiological harmony.” (Heller, 31).
The physical presence of mother helps regulate her sleep rhythms. She uses her mother to help regulate her hormone levels, immune function, and cardiovascular function.
It takes the human infant roughly 266 days to crawl. Exactly the same time that she spends within the womb. Nine months in utero. Nine months exterior gestation.
Although apes too are born in an immature condition, they remain immature for a much shorter time than humans do. They take about a third of the time as long to lift their heads, sit up by themselves, and to stand and walk.
They are born with brains about half the size they’ll eventually grow to, on average with 50% of their adult brain whereas human baby’s brains are only about 25% as big as human adults’ brains. The maturation that other mammals complete before birth, the human has to complete after birth. For a human infant to attain half of her adult brain size in utero, it would take about 18 months gestation (Trevathan, 144).
That’s an extra nine months—As aforementioned, this is precisely the age time period that infants tend to be when they begin to move about by their own means and crawl. Both crawling and the attainment of 50% of adult brain size indicate that exterior gestation is completed roughly nine months after birth.
It would take about 18 months gestation in the womb for a human infant to attain half of her adult brain size. The maturation that other mammals complete before birth, the human infant has to complete after birth.
Francis, the newborn alpaca, one day after birth. Human infants can’t just stand up after birth. It takes them about nine months to move away from their mothers by their own volition.
When an alpaca is born, for example, in order to survive, she simply has to get up and learn to follow his mother. It is a reflexive instinctual pattern of action. Humans are different.
“The infant is not a passive creature who is shaped by his environment, but is constantly exploring, trying to learn, and bring the environment under his control.” (Karen, 203).
Being born earlier in the gestation cycle allows us to figure out our environment and our place in it with our moms by our sides. Being born earlier gives us a more open intelligence and helps us work our logic skills. Being “developmentally incomplete” does actually facilitate more creativity and individual personality (Pearce, MC, 10). Even though infancy only accounts for roughly 2% of our lifespan, an incredible 80% of an infant’s total brain growth will take place by the time she turns two (Heller, 110). An infant’s brain increases from a mere 25% adult size at birth to 60% of the volume of the adult brain by the end of the first year alone. That is almost 2/3 of the total growth of the brain occurring within a very short window of time (Montagu, 1986, 55-–6). In the first year a baby’s brain will grow faster than it ever will again. When a child turns three she will have already completed 90% of her brain growth.
A human infant is always trying to understand his environment and her place in it. Being born earlier in the gestation cycle enables more creativity and flexibility.
Even though ape infants mature faster than human infants, they still remain in constant proximity to their mothers for an extended period of time— usually until the nursing relationship subsides, which averages (three!) years or more. “Given our exterogestation ... separations from our body earlier than any other mammal defies logic.” (Heller, 29).
Apes mature faster than humans do, but they stay in constant contact with their mothers until they stop nursing- an average of three years.
Nursing and close proximity to mother for three years or more may be the norm in most of the world, but is certainly not the norm in the West or in Anglo-speaking countries. Many feel that too much carrying will actually spoil their babies. Yet, there is a strong movement of parents who are ditching the baby manuals and tapping into intuitive care for their children.
In Katie Allison Grangu’s book Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child, she calls on parents to trust what their instincts tell them: stating “Instead of feeling that you should put him down, rest assured that he is exactly where he needs to be.”
Although we may live in the modern age, "our brains remain grounded in the Stone Age. Nearly all our biochemistry and physiology are fine tuned to the conditions of life that existed when we were hunters and gatherers."(Granju, 273)
And in that lifestyle, babies were kept on or near their mothers, their source of safety. After eons of such behavior, the baby’s brain evolved to expect life to be a “womb with a view,” with the mother’s brain hard- wired to provide that closeness.” (Heller, 4). Babies could not have been born developmentally incomplete and left alone most of the day or separated from their mothers if we were to survive as a species.
“No matter how numerous its advantages, however, retardation of growth rates and birth at an earlier stage of gestation could never have occurred had there not been compensating care taking behavior on the part of the mother.” (Trevathan, 149).
In the eyes of the newborn, she, the newborn is not even differentiated from the mother. They are a single unit, a mother-infant dyad. Yet, despite these obvious signs of dependency, the actual physiological and neurobiological immaturity of the newborn is hardly respected. For a baby to be made prematurely “an individual” and to separate her from her mother in the first moments, days, weeks, or months after birth does indeed present a challenge for that individual’s future growth, security, and stability. The importance of the mothers’ and infants’ being “in touch” and together during this critical developmental period cannot be stressed enough.
“If parents fully understood the implications of their influence on their child, especially in the beginning of his or her life, the necessity for abundant touch and affection would never even need to be considered.” (Caplan, 36).
Nature intended for babies to be with their mothers, especially at a time when their brains will grow more than any other time in their lives. By the end of her first year her brain will increase from 25% of the adult brain to 60%.In her book the Continuum Concept, anthropologist Jean Leidloff explains,
“A baby deprived of the experience necessary to give him the basis for full flowering of his innate potential will perhaps never know a moment of the unconditional rightness that has been natural to his kind for 99.99 percent of its history. Deprivation, in the degree to which he has suffered its discomfort and limitations in infancy, will be maintained indiscriminately as part of his development ...” (Leidloff , 48)
Nature has provided us with a biological way to space children, allowing the mother to care for her child each infant for a longer period of time. This gives them both the time that they need together to form a deep lasting bond (Jackson, 45). The Kung San children remain in constant skin contact with their mothers and frequently and unrestrictedly breastfeed. Although they use no forms of western birth control, their children are spaced three to four years apart (Shostak, 67). Although with “cultural breastfeeding” there may be no effects on a mother’s fertility whatsoever, when a mother and infant participate in the human biological norm or “ecological breastfeeding,” women remain in lactational amenorrhea (absence of periods due to unrestricted breastfeeding and constant proximity) and babies are spaced naturally.
"Ecological breastfeeding is a form of nursing in which a mother fulfills her baby’s needs for frequent suckling and her full time presence and in which the child’s frequent suckling postpones the return of fertility.” (Kippley, 8)
This is different from “cultural” breastfeeding. Although overlooked by many medical professionals, ecological breastfeeding and natural child spacing is backed empirically. When following the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding, a natural child spacing effect of 18 to 30 months between births is the average. It is called “ecological” because it describes the relationship between two organisms, both mother and baby, and how they a effect each other. A mother can naturally spend more time with her baby during such an important period of development. Her body knows that she is giving so much to her baby that her body is not ready to provide for and nourish another life so soon. The mother’s reserve energies are not depleted with menstrual bleeding during this time when her ovulation is suppressed.
Lots of surging “love hormone” here. Both enraptured by each other.
This nursing relationship plays an important role in establishing a strong foundation of trust.Not only does the baby need her mother, the mother benefits from having her baby close. After a trying birth process the mother is reassured with the feeling of strength and fulfillment when she holds her baby close to her chest. The baby is reassured by her mother’s touch, the warmth of her mother’s body, and the security of being held in her mother’s cradled arms. After birth, when the baby latches on to the breast, the mother’s uterus contracts and begins to reduce in size. The nursing creates surges of “love hormone” (or oxytocin) that help intensify a mother’s bond with her baby and the willingness to mother her child. She becomes more and more enraptured by her baby, and her baby enraptured by her. This nursing relationship and intimacy between mother and baby that follows plays an important part role in establishing a lifelong basis for the feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and contentment.
Infancy lays the foundation for all later learning. The more work our baby’s brain does, the more it becomes capable of doing and the more it hungers for new knowledge. The importance of the first years of life on brain development can hardly be denied as they “directly and permanently influence the structure and eventual function of his or her brain.” And that makes it all the more critical for a baby to be held by her mother, especially during the exterogestation period when her brain is developing more than any time in her life (Eliot, 38). For many abilities, the critical period can extend throughout childhood and even up to adolescence. But for others, “it closes within the first months or years of life before most parents even knew that their baby’s mental development was even vulnerable.” Eliot states,
“Synapses that are rarely activated—whether because of languages never heard, music never made, sports never played, mountains never seen, love never felt—will wither and die. Lacking adequate electrical activity, they lose the race and the circuits they were trying to establish ... As long as an excess number of synapses are present, the brain remains maximally plastic and can develop in a variety of ways, but once those synapses are gone, the critical period is over, and it must make do with its existing circuitry. There’s no trading up for a faster computer.” (Elliot, 32, 38).
Eliot does not deny that later learning is possible, but she definitely contends that learning is not as easy as it is for a child—a reason older people may tend to be more fixed in their ways and not as creative as young children. Sensory experience is important in the first few years while the brain is in its height of plasticity. Sharon Heller goes as far as to say that “not capitalizing on all the sensory experiences in our infant’s world is tantamount to educating adults by limiting their access to the library.” (Heller, 110)
Yet “capitalizing” should not be interpreted to mean that artificial “learning environments” should be created. “Trying to press academic skills onto youngsters with devices like alphabet flash cards is not only a little silly, but also risks setting up a pressured environment that may ultimately interfere with your child’s learning ... Each child weaves his own intellectual tapestry.” (Healy, 20, 31)
“Experiences in the environment need not be elaborate as in the installation of mobiles over the child’s crib or the broadcasting of musical recordings. Rather simple and routine aspects of the physical environment such as noise, light and temperature variations ... touching the baby, cooing and smiling at the baby and otherwise talking to him or her contribute to development.” (Bauer, 33)
Infant brains instinctively seek stimulation from very simple experiences that help organize the nervous system instead of overwhelming it. Toys are far less important than a nurturing caregiver. Infants need an environment that stimulates them to do their own exploring, manipulating, and wondering. A mother’s arms provide this just perfectly. As doctor and family psychiatrist Peter Cook puts it,
“A child’s maturation occurs at its own accord. You don’t have to make it happen.”
Though toys can give parents a respite, they are no comparison to the rich environment of their mother’s arms.
The question that often arises is whether we should begin with “educating” the child earlier in a more formal setting. In his book The Myth of the First Three Years, Bauer is mostly skeptical of public policy that focuses on “educating” children, which often involves taking children from their families and placing them in a “more stimulating” environment in the first three years of life. Some policy makers are trying to get the public to believe that they should be starting formal education earlier, advocating Head Start programs for children as young as 1 year, hoping to take advantage of the time when the brain is growing more than ever. But policy makers and early childhood education advocates may overlook the fact that,
“We are designed to grow and be strengthened by every event, no matter how mundane or awe- some. The flow of nature and seasons, people, apparent catastrophes, pleasantries—all are experiences of interaction to be enjoyed and opportunities for learning.” (Pearce, 28)
It’s impossible to live and not learn. Plenty of stimulation going on here. The baby is safe, calm and alert- in the optimum state to processing all that is going on in her environment.
Although the intent may be to best or “optimally” equip our children fully for life, these first three years are when the child needs his mother and his family most. At a time when a baby’s brain is growing more than it ever will in her lifetime, it is important to recognize that exterior gestation is meant to take place on the mother’s body, not in a container, and certainly not alone and out of sight.
A stroller with smart toys hanging from it or a plastic container with a cuddly stuffed animal is no substitute when it compares to view and all the varied sensory stimulation made available when carried by his mother.
Carrying a baby in arms naturally enhances the nourishing relationship between mother and baby. In addition to being nourished physically and psychologically, babies who are held during the period of exterogestation are nourished by a whole sensory world that moving through the day with their mother provides. When carried in her mother’s arms, the child gets a safe place from which to view the world. It is from this safe known place that babies learn about the unknown. When a baby is in a calm and alert state and in touch with her mother, she is in the optimum state for observing and processing all that is going on around her. These different opportunities for learning create the sparks for the neurons in her brain to grow and branch out and meet and intertwine with other neurons. The more these neurons grow and branch out, the greater the brain growth.
Although an infant’s brain is built on stimulation, toys or products that soothe fall short of producing the entire sensory world that we produce for our babies when we carry them on our bodies. Every hug, every playful squeeze, every kiss and caress gives her tactile stimulation. With her body pressed into her mother’s, she gains proprioception—an awareness of her own body and her body’s place in space. She gets auditory stimulation with her mother’s gentle explanations, whispers, and songs sung especially for her. When carried, the swaying and the rhythmic rocking of her body stimulates her vestibular system, giving her a sense of balance and a secure feeling in space. She receives olfactory stimulation with the scent of her mother, and if she nurses she receives gustatory stimulation with the changing taste of her mother’s milk. She has a great view when carried upright and is treated to great visual stimulation as she takes in the sights of the world. She even gets kinesthetic stimulation as mother changes position when carrying her.
In 1915, Dr. Henry Chapin, a New York pediatrician, revealed that babies placed in institutions in 10 different cities in the United States had virtually a 100 percent death rate, despite receiving food and medical care. They died from what the doctors called “failure to thrive” or “marasmus”—in other words, wasting away (Montagu, 1986, 97). Chapin, appalled by this, organized a new system of dealing with the babies and started to board them out to families instead of leaving them to be cared for in institutions. When studies were done to find out the actual causes of marasmus and where and why it happened, it was actually found to occur “quite often among babies in the ‘best’ homes, hospitals, and institutions and among babies receiving the ‘best and most careful attention.’” (Montagu, 99) It became evident that it was actually in the poorest homes where, although good hygienic conditions may not have been prevalent, the infants were thriving. The difference was that the poorer mothers were the ones who held, stroked, caressed, and nurtured the babies. When medical establishments began to recognize this, some hospitals made it the rule that nurses were to “pick up the infants, carry them around and ‘mother’ them,” at least three times a day. As a result the mortality rates dropped drastically (Montagu, 99).
Mother-infant intimacy and physical contact is important not only for brain growth, but for overall physical growth. Infants who are severely deprived of touch do not secrete growth hormone. Patton and Gardner published records of children who were maternally deprived, and not only the mental but also the physical disturbances that occurred with one 3-year-old’s bone growth “being just half of the bone growth of a normal child.” (Montagu, 244)
Lack of touch is not just detrimental to an infant’s brain growth, but negatively impacts overall physical growth and immune function. Lack of touch has serious physiological implications.
Some have argued that the deficiency of growth hormone ensures that the body will not waste its energy on growing, but on finding a way to survive. Institutionalized infants deprived of touch will not secrete growth hormone, yet upon contact and tactile stimulation will begin to grow again (Montagu, 202-203).
Touch is so important to the healthy development of an infant that a lack of stimulus and touch actually causes high amounts of the toxic stress hormone cortisol to be released. High levels of cortisol in the blood negatively impact not only growth hormone levels, but also immune function. The Developmental Psychobiology Research Group at the University of Colorado Medical center reported how monkeys separated from their mothers for a brief period of time stopped producing leukocytes to fight off infection. When reunited with their mothers, their immune system returned to normal and started producing leukocytes again (Montagu, 199).
Our skin is our largest organ. We need to be touched in order to thrive. Neurologist Richard Restak puts it well:
“Touch, it turns out is as necessary to normal infant development as food and oxygen. Mother opens her arms to the infant, snuggles him, and a host of psycho- biological processes are brought about into harmony.” (Walsh, Biosociology, 62).
What the child requires if it is to prosper it was found, is to be handled and carried, and caressed, and cuddled and cooed to. Montagu writes,
“even if it wasn't breastfed...It is the handling, the carrying, the caressing, the care giving, and the cuddling that we would here emphasize, for it would seem that even in the absence of a great deal else, these are the reassuringly basic experiences that the infant must enjoy if it is to survive some semblance of health.” (Montagu, 100).
These two are just beautiful. Connected in a magical way. Above all things, touch is the most crucial to the healthy development of the human infant.
Continuing the second nine months out of the womb, these two have built a steady foundation of trust. So much so, that she can watch him silently surrender to sleep in her arms.
When a baby is held close to her mother, her cues are easier to read. Communication between them is made easier. When her cues are responded to, she learns that she can “trust” that her needs will be met, that she is loved and will be provided for. This sets the foundation for her fundamental self-esteem and the foundation for all subsequent relationships that she will have in her life. She is not bonded to material things like a stuffed animal to hug, a soft blanket to cuddle, or an artificial nipple, but she looks to a real human being, her mother, for comfort.
In 1977, perinatal psychologist Dr. Rice explored the impact daily increments of tactile stimulation would have on premature infants. The experimental infants were undressed for a full body massage by their mothers four times a day for one month, and rocked and snuggled for five minutes at the end of the massage. The control group was given the routine hospital care without the massages or cuddling.
After four months, “the experimental infants were significantly superior to the control infants in weight gain, mental development, and most markedly neurological development.” (Walsh, 62)
The experimental group became more attached to one another as well. Soon after, Rice developed the first scientifically researched massage program, Rice Infant Sensorimotor Stimulation (RISS), which clearly demonstrated neurological improvement, as well as overall improvement in the growth and development of premature babies.
" A wide and well-respected variety of research from different fields of study—including child development, psychiatry, neonatology, and anthropology—has revealed that humans literally require sufficient physical touch in order to develop to their optimal potential.” (Granju, 268)
Premature infants placed in incubators tend to push themselves into the corners of their beds. They seek out that familiar feeling of containment. When preemies were placed on oscillating water beds that mimicked the motion and tactile stimulation of the womb, the infants started to gain weight faster and were released sooner from the hospital (Field, 45–51).
Kangaroo Mother Care provides an intimate form of protection so that rest, growth, and natural healing may occur. All babies benefit.In the practice of kangaroo care, a baby is held in continuous skin to skin contact as close to 24 hours a day as possible with his mother. This is accomplished by placing the baby in the kangaroo position, a strictly upright position and stomach down (prone) on the mother’s bare chest. Technology can be added on as needed. Exclusive breastfeeding is the ideal. The mother may recline in a chair with blanket draped over her chest or she may stand upright if sling or wrap is available.
“The closer the external environment to the internal environment, the more a baby stabilizes and can turn his attention to growth and development" (Genna, 64)
A preemie that is placed skin to skin with his mother, and practices Kangaroo Mother Care, will be able to regulate his own systems better than when placed flat on his back in an incubator. It truly is incredible that this particular way of holding your infant, practiced in leading neonatal centers all over the world, has such an extraordinary effect on preterm babies. Although it was initially developed for use with preterm and low birth weight babies Kangaroo Mother Care is beneficial for all babies, especially as they finish their exterior gestation. The basic requirements, warmth, breast milk, love, and protection are all taken care of when in constant contact with her mother.
Although the baby will emerge from the womb, his mother is designed to provide a safe and nourishing holding place for his continued gestation. In the womb, all baby’s needs are met automatically. The temperature is constant, the pressure is constant, and the sounds of the mother’s heartbeat and voice are rhythmic and soothing. The baby is enclosed, protected, and safe. And then “out of a totally protective, secure, nutritive, life sustaining and nurturing womb, we are born, helpless.” (Palmer, 21) But mothers are tuned by evolution to provide a safe holding place during their babies’ continued growth— one in which nutrition, protection, warmth, and proximity are all taken care of.
"The familiar, comfortable environment of her mother’s body reassures the baby by telling her that she is in a secure place, that she will be provided for, and that she is in contact with the world and not airily suspended in it.” (Montagu, 1896, 157).
It is from this secure base that exploration of her world can happen.
This baby looks so peaceful and content sleeping in her lambswool nest that mimics the containment of the womb. Mothers can create and imitate that comfortable and secure environment by wrapping their babies with a baby wrap or a piece of cloth.
Dr. Pearce describes the womb as a place that offers three things to a newly forming life: “a source of possibility, a source of energy to explore that possibility, and a safe place within which that possibility can take place.” (Pearce, 18)Mothers can create and imitate that place outside of the womb too.
Carrying a baby in your arms or wearing her in a wrap or sling mimics the enclosure and supportive pressure of the womb. And like the womb, it offers a protective and safe environment and a superb position to view the world, which is especially important considering that the brain is growing faster in early infancy than any other time in life. The movement of the mother as she goes about her day rocks the baby just as she was rocked in the womb and is soothing and familiar.
The wrapping together of baby and mother mimics the safety, security and pressure of the womb.
Most importantly the baby receives tactile stimulation—she is touched, kissed, stroked, caressed and held close by her mother. She knows she is loved and trusts that her needs will be met.
This guy knows his needs will be met.
“Our silent and most potent language, touch, is the medium through which parent and infant communicate and become attached, each tender touch strengthening the bond between them. It nurtures our infants’ psychological growth; stimulates their physical and mental growth; assures smoothness of physiological functions like breathing, heart rate and digestion; enhances their self-concept, body awareness, and sexual identity; boosts their immune system; and even enhances the grace and stability of their movement.” (Heller, 5)
This family is in touch. All nurtured. They are growing up into compassionate, secure, and joyful human beings- just what the world needs!
Science is reconfirming what the first mothers who stood upright knew intuitively that their arms provide the optimal environment after transition from womb to the world. Nature intended that a mother and her infant expect this unity and for that unity not to end at birth. Not only is a mother’s body prepared and designed to continue the gestation of her baby after birth, but her baby has biologically adapted to expect this for survival. Carrying a baby in your arms or in a baby wrap, cloth or carrier provides this extended nurturing experience. By nurturing her baby in a manner that mimics the intimacy of pregnancy as closely as possible until this “exterior gestation” is complete, a mother gives her baby all she needs to develop and grow physically, mentally, and emotionally into a secure and joyful individual.
By Elizabeth Antunovic, Published 2008
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