Biological Determinism: Bonding, “natural” birth, and breastfeeding

Biological determinism is defined as

the hypothesis that biological factors such as an organism’s individual genes (as opposed to social or environmental factors) completely determine how a system behaves or changes over time.Consider certain human behaviors, such as having a particular taste in music, committing murder, or writing poetry. A biological determinist would look only at innate factors, such as genetic makeup, in deciding whether or not a given person would exhibit these behaviors. They would ignore non-innate factors, such as social customs and expectations, education, and physical environment.

Biological determinism was very popular in the early decades of the 20th century, especially among western eugenicists. Once the Nazis took the concept to its logical extreme, however, those ideas fell out of favor. Most scientists today do not accept the idea that human biology is, or should be, the only determining factor of how humans relate to the world, but rather that humans (and other organisms, for that matter) are the combined product of biological, sociocultural, and environmental factors. And IMO, that’s a good thing.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see certain prominent NP/AP advocates and their groupies taking up the banner of biological determinism again. In fact, one could say the whole of the Natural Parenting movement hold what they perceive to be biological realities to be the standard by which we all must parent, at least in order to be good parents. Doing anything else will surely lead to substandard parenting behavior and “damaged” children.

Consider the Kathy Dettwyler quote I’d already brought up in a previous post, in which she asserts,

a mother who is bottle feeding won’t have the critical “mothering” hormones in her bloodstream (prolactin and oxytocin) that automatically predispose her to attachment-parenting practices. These hormones are released from a mother’s pituitary only in response to her child suckling at her breast.

Consider, also, Dr. Michel Odent, one of the fathers of the “Natural Birth” movement and current anti-vaccine skeptic (he’s on the board of Medical Veritas, a magazine which serves as an outlet to some of the worst anti-vaccine quackery outside of the Internet), who has also been claiming that women who have cesarean sections are less likely to bond with their babies, due to their missing out on the magical “hormonal love cocktail” that happens during labor and breastfeeding. In fact, Odent has been reported to correlate the C-section rate in any given city with its rate of delinquency: he feels that Amsterdam is safer to carouse at night than Sao Paolo, for example, because the former has a much lower C-section rate.

While oxytocin levels do peak during labor and childbirth and prolactin levels peak after birth, this is not exclusive to women who had “natural” births. In fact, all women will lactate after birth unless given a lactation-suppressing drug, or if their pituitary glands were damaged earlier on (a medical condition called Sheehan’s syndrome). There is also no obvious connection in humans between the method of birthing to the mother’s feeling she and her infant have bonded – women can and do routinely bond to their infants after traumatic vaginal births, C-sections, with labor, without labor, even without birth – unless you’d like to discount the bonding between fathers and babies, or adoptive parents to their children. Of course, these hormones are not “released from a mother’s pituitary only in response to her child suckling at her breast” as Dettwyler claims; oxytocin and prolactin are expressed in both sexes, as a result of positive emotions, orgasm, and touching.

In fact, the term “bonding” is a subjective one; there is no way to measure it directly. You may be able to measure maternal behavior and try to draw conclusions about the maternal bonding quality, but that’s not necessarily indicative of what the mother feels inside. While it stands to reason that general anesthesia (as opposed to the regional analgesia an epidural provides) might make a mother feel too ill to bond with her baby and take care of her in the first few weeks, there is no evidence that this has any lasting effect – and let’s not forget that the more support a woman has, the more “loving hormone” (as oxytocin has been called) she will have regardless.

To emphasize how pernicious this biologically determinant sort of thinking is, consider a scientist making the following statement: “People who fall in love at first sight have a much greater chance of their marriage surviving, and they love each other more than other couples, due to the initial hormonal cocktail which made them fall instantly in love”. Sounds hokey, doesn’t it? How can you measure the amount of love couples have for each other, anyway? But that’s essentially what the “natural” parents are trying to say about the maternal-infant bond: Do it our way (unmedicated birth, breastfeeding, babywearing), or you’re inferior.

Does it really not occur to these so-called “scientists” that, unlike lower animals, the limbic system in humans – which is the source of strong emotions like love, fear and aggression, and upon which these hormones supposedly work – can be modulated by our developed neocortex (otherwise known as the seat of reason)? Think about it for a second: animals feel an emotion and immediately act upon it. Humans are capable of reasoning, controlling their actions, sometimes reasoning themselves into or out of emotions.

How many people really fall in love at first sight, vs. people who make a conscious decision to fall in love with another (My husband and I definitely belong in the latter category. We are very well bonded, thankyouverymuch.)? Conversely, do women who have had C-sections or epidurals, or who bottlefeed, routinely abandon their children in hospital because of some supposed hormone deficiency?

Why are certain NP advocates trying to equate human behavior to that of the average lab rat?

Let’s do away with this crapola. Humans know how to bond, and they can produce sufficient quantities of hormones and modulating neurotransmitters whether or not their method of birth passes muster with these “scientists”. And whether or not they do so has to do with their pre-partum personality and most probably begins before birth, not because they practice birth and parenting a certain way.

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9 Responses

  1. Where can I find a midwife, doula, etc. who does NOT believe Odent?

  2. I don’t know, but this post might help you find one.

  3. comparing “falling in love” to the physical/hormonal/emotional processes of vaginal vs c-section is like comparing apples to oranges. a woman’s body is made to perform/react a certain way from childbirth. the hormonal/emotional response is different when you’re “the driver” vs “the passenger.”

    perhaps one can’t measure bonding directly, but there is a delay when chemicals (pitocin, pain medication, etc.) are added to the experience and can interfere with emotional/psychological status during the birthing process. and it’s also obvious that there is a physiological difference between a vaginal birth and having the baby removed from the abdomen (for whatever reason). this physical process also dictates hormonal reponse. we would have to be robots to react hormonally/emotionally/psychologically similar to different physical processes.

  4. The concepts espoused by Odent et. al, to which I was exposed prior to the birth of my son, have done me no end of harm in terms of postpartum stress, anxiety, and depression. During my pregnancy, I watched “The Business of Being Born”, “Orgasmic Birth”, and “What Babies Want” over and over again. I completely drank the AP, babywearing, breastfeeding, natural childbirth Kool-Aid. I wanted it all! My husband and I took the Hypnobabies course and rented a birthing tub.
    To make a long story short, I ended up with an emergency c-section in hospital when my son failed to descend after 12 hours of labor. Turns out he was almost 10lbs, and malpositioned. A hundred years ago, a natural childbirth could have killed us both. Or perhaps midwives back then did more than sit on your sofa and watch you labor. Unfortunately, mine did not do much more than that. (Not all midwives are Ina May Gaskin!) So, it was modern medicine that saved our lives.
    To make another long story short, we had tremendous difficulties with breastfeeding. Nobody tells you that latch difficulties or inverted nipples can make breastfeeding virtually impossible. I pumped around the clock for months so that I could give him breastmilk, and stave off the guilt of not doing so, despite terrible pain every time I attached my breasts to that medieval torture device!
    Because of our c-section & bottle-feeding, I cried buckets of tears fearing that my son and I would now not be able to bond. I think that my depression and anxiety due to my intense worry probably did more harm to our bond than if I had been completely oblivious. The AP/NP people really need to consider the reality that many women and their babies are simply unable to have the “perfect” experience, and help us to know how to move forward despite difficulties. Luckily, I found a very supportive and reality-based lactation consultant and postpartum doula, both of whom encouraged me to do what I could, without guilt. They reassured me numerous times that my baby would be fine, and our bond would be fine, despite the c-section, and even if we had to go to formula.

  5. It’s interesting that you put Dr Michel Odent in the “camp” of AP/NP. If you have read his extensive writings, you will know that he is neither. He writes about and is primarily concerned with the physiological aspect of birth. He is not anti C-section, nor does he encourage water birth. In fact, he states very clearly in his book, “The Caesarean”, if a woman has entered a birthing pool dilated around 5-6 cm, and fails to dilate any more after 2 hours in the pool, she should immediately have a C-section, as her body is not able to give birth vaginally. He is very clear on the importance of women spending no more than two hours in the pool, as it will create a feedback reflex in the pituitary gland and slow the flow of oxytocin, thus slowing down the contractions and hindering the labour. He states himself that his encouragement of the use of birthing pools has been entirely misrepresented by the Natural/Active Birthing movement to mean “waterbirth”. Many women will give birth easily and quickly because the fetal ejection reflex occurs so suddenly while they labour in water; however, with others this does not occur for whatever reason and often, with no further dilation, they will experience a C-section afterwards. I encourage you to read “The Caesarean”! You shouldn’t be feeling guilty at all, and reading this book will be reassuring and not condemning.

  6. Can’t you see it in society?

    “I suspect that the parental brain is ‘primed’ by vaginal delivery and affected by neurohormonal factors such as oxytocin, a hormone linked to emotional connections and feelings of love,” said Swain. “C-sections may alter these neurohormonal factors and increase the risk of problematic bonding and postpartum depression.”

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