Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The baby "knows"

Homebirth advocates place an astounding amount of faith in the judgment of babies. They often claim that the baby "knows" when to be born. The underlying assumption is that the baby is controlling the process, the baby "knows" what is best, and whatever a baby "chooses" to do naturally, must, by definition, be best. This is a rather startling claim to make about tiny, preverbal beings. Is it supported by evidence or by common experience? Let's take a look at what babies naturally "know" about safety.

Babies naturally explore objects by mouthing them. They will put anything and everything into their mouths: small objects, sharp objects, leaves, dirt, bugs. If they can get it into their hands, they will put it into their mouths. Do babies naturally "know" the difference between what is safe and what is harmful? Of course not. Do we let babies play with any and all objects because they will "know" not to put sharp or poisonous things into their mouths? Obviously not. Do we assume that babies will "know" that foul tasting liquids like cleaning supplies should not be ingested? No; we are well aware that babies, if left to their own devices, will drink even caustic liquids. Babies' desire to mouth objects is entirely natural, yet it is also very dangerous. That's why we supervise babies.

Babies are naturally curious. If there is an uncovered electrical outlet within a ten room radius, a baby will certainly find it and attempt to put a finger into it. Even better, if there is a metal object at hand, like a fork, they will try to put that into the outlet. Babies love to climb. If they see something they want on a countertop, they will use anything available as hand holds and foot holds, climbing without any fear of heights, often with disasterous results. Do we dismiss the need to baby proof our homes because babies will "know" not to touch dangerous things? No, of course not. Do we leave babies alone because they will "know" not to climb. No, we don't do that either. The inquisitiveness of babies is entirely natural, yet it is also very dangerous. That's why we supervise babies.

So will someone please explain why we should assume that small, preverbal beings who will naturally and happily poison themselves, electrocute themselves, or plunge off countertops should be trusted to "know" not to wait too long to be born?


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