Primal Parenting: Giving Babies the Best Start in Life

By Patricia Törngren, CCE © 2011
Provided for by author.
Read more from Törngren at Parenting With Love

Mother and baby from Patricia Törngren's Primal Parenting Page

Few adults today would associate the way they were treated as babies with the problems they may be experiencing in their adult lives. Yet people undergoing Primal Therapy and the other Deep Feeling Regressive Therapies, often become only too aware of them. For a long time I have been battling in therapy with the pain of my overwhelming loneliness as a baby. I was not fed often enough and not picked up nearly enough to meet my needs. I was also made to sleep alone at night from birth on.

Recently, my therapist gave me a book to read because it confirmed so clearly what I was reliving in my sessions with him. I’d like to share it here. It is an archaeologically-based book called The Prehistory of Sex, written by Timothy Taylor. The relevant section is on pages 189 - 191.

Taylor states that in hunter-gatherer societies, children continue to breastfeed until the age of five or six. They get great comfort from the unconditional love that breastfeeding provides. From this they learn trust, reliance, and sharing. The author points out, that far from becoming dependent individuals, they display remarkable autonomy, because they have a strong, inner sense of their own value.

He makes the point that in warrior societies, the opposite is often the case. Colostrum is frequently withheld from the baby. Early weaning usually follows this. As a result, the baby is left with unresolved pain, anger, helplessness and rage, which it cannot understand, and cannot express.

Later in life, this is likely to emerge in the form of either depression, or aggressive and violent tendencies, which may be projected onto, and acted-out against, another person, or a group of people. Thus, such a society becomes a war-like one. (Swiss Psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, discusses a similar phenomenon in her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence).

There is a practice currently being taught by some doctors and childcare professionals, called "controlled crying." Parents are urged to use it to make their children more independent. Timothy Taylor has deeper insight into what it is actually doing to the baby. *

He says that for early weaning to be forced onto the child, the child must be made to sleep alone, and its crying ignored. In "controlled crying," the child is allowed to cry a little more each night before its needs for food and comfort are responded to. As a result, the child eventually stops crying at all. At this point the uninformed may be delighted - believing the child has been trained into better habits. In contrast, what Taylor suggests has happened, is that a basic animal instinct has come into play – one observed in the young of most mammals and birds. The baby instinctively feels, “If you signal your distress, and no one comes, you have been abandoned. You will die unless you conserve energy. Crying expends energy. Therefore in order to survive, you must stop crying, and shut down.” Before it stops crying, however, the baby must adopt the knowledge that it has been abandoned.

The outcome of this is very serious. Taylor links it to classical conditioning and Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness. He argues that if a child cries, and its cries go unheeded, and its needs unmet, the child begins to detach from reality. Instinctively, the child feels, “No matter how hard I try, nothing changes, and no relief comes. So why try anymore? My efforts are in vain anyway.” Such knowledge is overwhelming to a baby, and in order to survive, the baby represses this into unconsciousness, and tries to numb itself to sleep.

Experiencing such futility to affect its environment, or summon a care-giver, becomes the basis of what is called learned helplessness. The child has learned from the beginning that trying to get its needs met, or asserting itself in any way, is futile. Tragically, learned helplessness is often the forerunner of clinical depression. We need to help parents become aware of the fact that their "good, well-trained" babies, may be in danger of becoming depressed and/or anxious, and may continue to be so in later life, unless they go through years of costly therapy. Because proactive prevention is better than cure, it has become essential that we get this information through to new parents as early as possible.

Mother sing Kangaroo Mother Care with her newborn

In a paper read at an international conference on Kangaroo Mother Care in 1998, a Cape Town doctor, Dr. Nils Bergman, cites the research of Lozoff et. al. (1977) who studied the way hunter-gatherer peoples raise their children. He says, “Common to all groups is the fact that newborns are carried constantly. They sleep with their mothers, there is immediate response to crying, feeding takes place every one to two hours, and breastfeeding continues for at least two years.” He goes on to urge parents to give this kind of nurturing to their children if the human race is to survive.

For most of us, tragically, this information has come too late. What makes me sad, is that although my mother was not a warm, cuddly person, she was very conscientious and wanted to do it right. If the childcare books of her time had told her to hold and comfort me after birth, to pick me up and carry me around close to her body, to let me sleep with her, to feed me when I was hungry, and not leave me to starve for 8 hours every night, she would have followed their instructions and the story of my life would probably have been very different.

Instead the doctor told her not to pick me up too often and not to feed me under any circumstance from 10:00pm until 6:00am, because my stomach "needed to rest." (Some of my most agonized baby primals have been about this terrible nightly ordeal of loneliness and starvation). Because she was a conscientious mother, my mother followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter.

My crying did concern her though, so she phoned the doctor and said, “I can’t leave my baby to cry like this. Shouldn’t I feed her?” His response was, “Whatever you do, don’t feed your baby before 6.00 am, because it’s bad for the baby’s stomach.” So from about 4:00am every morning, she walked the floor with me for two hours while I cried, but she never fed me. She told me later that it made her feel desperate.

It made me feel desperate too. I was telling her as plainly as I knew how, that I was starving and in pain. Yet it seemed that nothing I did could get her to understand what I so desperately needed. This has contributed to problems throughout my life; such as the fear that I will never be understood, no matter how clearly I try to express myself. It also left me with great insecurities about food, and fear of there never being enough. In addition, I was left feeling that I was "bad" and undeserving of receiving anything (even food when I was starving), because I could feel my mother’s irritability and resentment at being woken so early each morning.

So in my adult life I have had to battle my way through problems of low self- esteem, feelings of being undeserving, lack of assertiveness, learned helplessness and depression. All this has contributed to my having to spend many years in Primal Therapy, recovering from my childhood, which thankfully, I am doing now.

To help parents, there are several good sites on the internet today. Two that I suggest are The Natural Child Project and The Primal Parenting Page. I recommend them to anyone who is having a baby or who is planning to have one in the future. They give links to sites that promote "attachment parenting" - keeping the baby in close, loving contact with its mother's (or father's) body for the early months of life, feeding the baby on cue whenever s/he is hungry, and allowing baby to sleep close to the warm bodies of its parents at night - to meet the primal infant needs for touching and closeness. Hopefully, this nurturing and loving style of caring for children will become the parenting of the future, as it was in our distant past. If it doesn't, our future as humanity is bleak indeed.

Dr. Nils Bergman closed his article on Kangaroo Mother Care with these words, " is a Public Health Imperative. It is the design of the past, and our future depends on it."


* Update: Recent research confirms Taylor’s hypothesis. Brain scans and studies measuring the vital signs and stress hormone levels of babies show that they become measurably traumatised if their needs for love and physical closeness are not adequately met. Sue Gerhardt’s book, Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain lists some of the most recent studies.


The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff

Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League

Nighttime Parenting by William Sears

The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin

The Biology of Love by Arthur Janov

Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt

Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland

The Baby Bond by Linda Palmer

The Vital Touch by Sharon Heller

The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart by Jan Hunt

Kangaroo Babies by Nathalie Charpak

Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Sarah Buckley

Kangaroo Mother Care article by Patricia Törngren

Yahoo Group Kangaroo Mother Care



  1. So true! Please add this to the reading list:
    Welcoming Consciousness: Supporting Babies' Wholeness From the Beginning of Life-An Integrated Model of Early Development [Paperback]
    Wendy Anne McCarty

  2. You have done a wonderful job of explaining how babies internalise and live out the messages that ignoring or satisfying their needs gives them. Thank you for sharing your story, that is so generous and touching of you to do so. Your story makes the new understandings from neuroscience that backs up Alice Miller's work so well. Another wonderful book to add to the mix is Bruce Lipton's "Biology of Belief" and the author Daniel Siegal (The developing mind and Parenting from the inside out) is an excellent writer on the way that our first relationships shape who we are. James Prescott is another to investigate as he was one of the first to really identify the origins of love and hate and talked about how skin to skin, being carried breastfed and touched formed the gestalt of love and security - a great insight into the human condition. Thanks again for sharing your story, you will help many who want to raise healthy, happy, independent children to grow into happy, productive autonomous adults.

  3. Interesting article. I don't know anything about primal therapy, but what you've written makes sense to me. I've also wondered what sublimal effect our society's message that "children are a burden" has on babies and children. I think this is the basis for the advice to modern parents to make babies fit their schedules, rather than for parents to seek to understand and meet their baby's needs. We want babies to be easy and convenient, in this age of convenience, and babies are not. So when an "expert" tells us a way to make babies fit our schedule and be convenient, we follow that advice. With devastating repercussions, as you show here.

  4. Why have I not come across this book before?
    He has written a more recent one The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution which reckons that a major factor in what makes us what we are was the invention of the baby sling. Skin, textile or other materials have not survived, but they were undoubtably used

  5. Umm, if baby is being fed every 1-2 hours, when do the parents sleep? I can understand this kind of treatment being best for a newborn-6 month old but when does the child start learning it is separate from the mother? I'm not a mum or anything, just a concerned godmother.

  6. Easy - co-sleep. The child will naturally learn separation as he gets older. It's a gradual process, but it does happen without scheduling feeds. My daughter is 15 months. I think she has at least 2 feeds in the night, but I couldn't tell you for sure, because I sleep through most of it.

  7. @Moonlight Siesta, if a baby is sleeping next to its mother, it can nurse freely throughout the night. During the day, mama can wear baby in a sling and nurse hands-free, if needed.

  8. Babies begin to learn that they are separate from their mother between 6 and 9 mos of age. It is at that time that they begin to see the world differently. HOWEVER, it is at this critical time when they often nurse most for reassurance that they are indeed safe. The nursing every 1-2 hours usually slows down after a year.

  9. The child starts learning it's separateness from it's mother when s/he starts becoming mobile. A child's natural curiosity will take them away from his/her mother's arms as they start to explore the world around them. Ensuring that these primal needs are met from the beginning ensures that the child will have the "home" security s/he needs in order to feel comfortable with venturing out on his/her own because that safe place has already been created, to which s/he can retreat when needed.

  10. I have always been able to mostly sleep through baby nursings once baby is past the first couple of months. and even in the beginning, it is wonderful to just be able to stay in your cozy bed with your babe, nurse, and then go right back to sleep without completely disrupting your sleep cycle by getting up, turning on lights, going to another room, etc. And as the previous posters mentioned, as babies grow older their need to feed every few hours diminishes, and they sleep longer periods. my cosleeping son still would sleep about 5 to 6 hrs in a stretch once he was past newborn age.

  11. I don't have the article handy, but i remember reading a psychological/development article that a child begins to understand being truly separate -- an independent being from it's mother -- around age 3.

    While the child is learning that s/he has some measure of separateness or autonomy from a very early age (6 mo, one year, mobility, etc), the real separation or individuation comes around 3 yrs.

    We cosleep still (DS is 3) and nurse still (once a day, currently, with cuddles throughout the day. And when DS was an infant, my breast was both nourishment and comfort -- he would "marathon nurse" and "use me as a pacifier" for *countless* hours of the day.

    I remember a woman commenting to me, having spent all day in a cafe with my then 6 month old son, that he nursed the majority of the time we were there. He played, slept, pottied (we did EC), and nursed. I never thought a thing of it -- we were both happy.

    He nursed as he cued until he was 2.5, and then I needed -- for my sanity -- to reduce it down to 3 times a day. Now, we nurse once a day, but I do not plan on discontinuing until DS is ready (unless i need to for my own sanity -- but i'm currently happy with the situation).

    He is bright, very independent, and very happy. He knows that he is separate -- even though he's never been left in care (he has had baby sitters, usually for up to 3-4 hrs tops, but it's always one-on-one and with someone whom he knows, or a friend and that friend's mother) -- and he tells us that he's looking forward to preschool (kindy, starts at age 3 here) by saying "Mom and dad and DSName walk to school. MOm and Dad leave, and DSNAme stays with Friends at school. DSName wears a tie."

    This last bit about the tie is because he sees the older boys on the bus wearing school uniforms -- common here. :) He's quite taken with the tie.

    IN any case, he is well aware, quite capable, and has a great attachment.

  12. I cry every time I hear about people leaving their babies alone to cry at night. It seems like it's abuse and nobody does anything about it. I wish there was something that I could do to stop all of those books, Drs and parents from passing this cruel and harmful information out to parents.

  13. After reading this blog in its entirety, I would say: I think that babies do not feel those feelings to that extent perhaps (conserving energy so they don't die, etc.), given that babies do not likely have such detailed thought processes. I think that they feel afraid when they realize no one is coming when they cry. If a baby is left to "cry-it-out", I think they cry til they are tired of crying, and shut down. I am sorry to say that before I knew better, I did that. :( I can't fathom the doctor telling your mother not to feed you, how sad. And I can certainly see how these things would lead to problems as an older child, and an adult.

  14. Patricia TorngrenJune 17, 2012 10:01 AM

    I'm so glad to know that the ariticle has helped so many people. I do believe that we can heal, but it's a long road, and how much better to prevent problems by giving babies and toddlers the love and nurturing they need. I'm available for comments if anyone is interested, especially on how we can help babies and toddlers to heal if their early needs have not been met.

    Find me at my site which is

  15. I'm confused about something you've said here. I have struggled greatly with depression, anxiety, and low self esteem all my life. However, unlike you.. My mother breast fed me untill I was 3 and I didn't want to anymore.. and We co-slept. I'm sure you're not saying that these "cry it out" techniques are the Only cause for depression etc. but I don't really understand how you know that your treatment as an infant is to blame? Another question, If you know baby is sleepy, Not hungry, not dirty, not in pain (judging by cry) you think its wrong to let baby cry for a few minutes untill he/she falls asleep? Expecting my first baby in November and all this information is a little overwhelming.. I just want to do whats best for my baby, and for me and my husband.

    1. Katy - your question was reposted to the peaceful parenting community so you can hear from others on this as well:



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