The Ultimate Bonding Model

“Never doubt that a small
group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing
that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
a few years ago I discovered what I believe is the ultimate model of bonding.
This way of life was researched first by Dr. Margaret Mead in her work in New
Guinea during the 1950s and written about in her numerous books and papers. She
was the first anthropologist to observe aboriginal grand-mothers re-lactating
and nursing their grandchildren in order to give their own daughters the rest
they needed after childbirth. Following her lead came along a little-known,
obscure explorer named Jean Liedloff (1926 – 2011). She only wrote one book
during her career. A former model for Vogue in Paris, Leidloff (above) was the
most unlikely non-scholar to make the discoveries that she did. Her story is an
incredible series of events that eventually brought her keen mind to the
brilliant, seminal work on bonding or maternal-infant attachment that she did,
though she looked at it rather as a way of life to preserve the species and not
as a single commodity that could be incorporated into one’s lifestyle in order
enhance the intelligence or well-being of children. To her it was a journey back
to the Stone Age, literally.

An obituary says that she died at the age of 84 in the pre-dawn hours on her
houseboat where she lived with her Abyssinian cat named Tulip in Sausalito,
California on March 15, 2011. Ms. Liedloff was born on November 26th,
1926 in New York City. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and
graduated from Drew Seminary for Young Women. She went on to attend Cornell
University for one year. In 1951 she traveled to Europe. Once there she began
working as a model for Paris Vogue. She learned French, Italian and Spanish,
without formal language studies and began taking occasional work as an

With letters of introduction from her elite connections,
Jean traveled to Florence, Germany and the French Riviera. In high-society at
that time, the gossip of the day was the “Party of the Century.” Crowned heads
of state, movie stars, dignitaries, artists, writers and everybody who was
anybody had been invited to Palazzo Labia for a masquerade
ball hosted by millionaire Carlos de Beistegui, a well-known flamboyant
character. It was at the ball that Jean met the two Italians who invited her to
join them on a hair-brained scheme to mine for diamonds in the South American
jungle which would soon seal her destiny as an explorer.
Over the next several years Ms. Liedloff made five
expeditions to Venezuela, first to hunt for diamonds (they did find a few, by
the way) and then to spend more than two and a half years among aboriginal
tribes deep in the rainforest. She returned to New York and Rome during the
intervals of her explorations and gained considerable attention for her
adventures. She began to meet with Margaret Mead and many other intellectual
elite of that era, some of whom questioned what a young woman without a college
degree could possibly have to say. Ms. Liedloff’s response was unapologetic.
She believed her unlettered status allowed her mind to remain free of
constructs that could have hindered her capacity to see the Indians and learn
from that experience.
Her friend and editor of the Paris Review, George Plimpton
encouraged her to write a book as her unique insights she’d gained from living
amongst the Yequana and the Sanema tribal groups began to coalesce into an astounding work on human nature. Ms. Liedloff’s astute observations and keen
insight eventually gave birth to The Continuum Concept, which
was first published in 1975 by Duckworth of London, with later editions done by
Perseus Books, of Reading, Massachusetts. The book and Ms. Liedloff’s original
genius garnered considerable recognition from names such as Gloria Steinem,
Jonas Salk, George Leonard (Esalen Institute), Frank Lake (Primal Integration
Therapy), Adam Yarmolinsky (the Kennedy Brain Trust), artist Andrew Wyeth, and
even legendary singer-songwriter John Lennon who found in her words deeply
comforting “home truths.” In the first
segment of their documentary film, Bringing up Baby, Tamsin
Greig, Anna Davies, Daisy Goodwin, Tanya Shaw and Sam Grace show some
actual footage of Jean Liedlff during one of her expeditions to
the Yequana people. The film* documents three parenting “experts”
mentoring 6 families from the day they bring their babies home from the
hospital. Three distinct styles are applied and the outcomes rated after
several months; a very ‘telling’ message.

Ms. Liedloff clarifies and champions what she termed
the “in-arms phase.” The vital importance of this period in a child’s
life has never been more clearly understood and articulated as it was by this
woman whose own childhood had left her bereft of the much-needed living
connection with mother that secures a growing infant’s sense of being both
worthy and welcome. Mothering Magazine named Ms. Liedloff a “Living
Treasure” in 2007, and although she never had children of her own, she
fully embraced motherhood and experienced it vicariously by encouraging
millions of mothers to follow nature’s clear and unambiguous imperatives. She
supported thousands of parents directly through phone consultations and
writings, and remained in touch with her many followers and devoted friends
from around the world throughout her final days. I personally consider her the
foremost authority on bonding and credit her with the most complete description
of what bonding and mother-infant attachment should look like.

So, what was she seeing in the jungles of Venezuela? In her
own words, “Birth cannot be thought of as marking a baby’s completion like the
end of an assembly line, for some complements have already been ‘born’ in the
womb and others will not become operative until later. Fresh from the series of
expectations and their fulfillments in the womb, the newborn is expectant, or
more accurately, certain that his next requirements will also be met. What
happens next? Through tens of millions of generations, what happens is the
momentous transfer from the entirely alive surrounding inside the mother’s body
to a partly live one outside it. Though her all-giving body is there and her
supporting arms as well, there is a great deal of lifeless, alien air touching the
infant’s body. But he is ready for that too; his place in arms is the expected
place, known to his inmost sense as his place, and what he
experiences while he is in arms is acceptable to his continuum, fulfills his
current needs and contributes correctly to his development. He cannot qualify
his impression of how things are. Either they are right or not right.         

“Requirements are strict at this early date. As we have
seen, he cannot hope, if he is uncomfortable now, that he will be comfortable
later. He cannot reason that ‘mother will be right back’ when she leaves him
[especially if she doesn’t answer his cries which are his only means of
communicating with the universe.] The world has suddenly gone wrong, conditions
are intolerable. He hears and accepts his own weeping but although his mother
knows the sound and its meaning since time immemorial, and so does any child or
adult who hears it, he does not. He  senses only  that it is a
positive action toward setting things right, but if he is left to cry too long,
if the response it is meant to elicit does not come, that feeling departs as
well, giving way to utter bleakness without time or hope. When his mother does
come to him, he simply feels right, he is not aware that she had been away, nor
does he remember having cried. He is reconnected to his lifeline and his
environment now meets his expectations. When he is abandoned, put out of his
continuum or correct experience, nothing is acceptable and nothing accepted.
Want is all there is, there is nothing to use, to grow on, to fulfill the
requirement for experience, for the experiences must be the expected ones and
nothing in his evolving ancestors’ experience has prepared him to be left
alone, asleep or awake, and even less to be left alone to cry. The feeling
appropriate to an infant in arms is his feeling or rightness, or essential

us continue by saying what she was not seeing. Liedloff was amazed to watch
infants and toddlers of the Yequana Native People and 
not see
tantrums, crying babies, fussy flailing children arching their backs or whining
for what they wanted. Rather the infants were ‘soft’, easy to carry,
non-demanding. Unlike Western babies, they didn’t need to ‘cry it out’ when
they were tired. They also didn’t need to be entertained 24-7. They were simply
brought along wherever the mother or person caring for them needed to be
throughout the day. They slept with their mothers, rode on her hip or was
carried until they were old enough to crawl those first few tentative steps
away from her, but that only happened through the child’s initiation, not the
parent’s. The babies appeared to be so secure through this ‘in arms’ way of
life that they ventured farther afield as they matured into very independent,
autonomous little people. They 
knew their place ‘in arms’ was
still there to check back to should they need it. Rather than being constantly
indulged and catered to, they were simply part of the continuum of life that
the former generations had experienced.

was enough stimulation for one day just being brought along while his mother
worked, bathed in the river, walked through the jungle, prepared food, ate, and
visited with other members of the tribe. He didn’t appear to need toys,
specific games, educational ‘moments’, or even extra attention. He was
there, absorbing all that was going on around him; learning
what he needed to learn, observing what he needed to understand for his own
development. His mother wasn’t bored to tears, alone with a baby at home day
after day. She didn’t spend her days in baby-only activities. She interacted
with her peers constantly. She didn’t shift her life from a career with purpose
to a stay-at-home lonely mother. Her life went on. The only difference was that
she was toting along a normally silent partner now. He would signal that he wanted
to eat and she hardly had to wonder what his needs were. It did not occur to
her to offer him different options for his choosing. He had enough to do just
watching the busy lives of his tribe while he went along for the ride. This was
rightness. This was his place in the continuum. He was welcomed into the inner
circle of his people. He was not relegated to the periphery. He slept, ate and

were more than enough interesting sights and sounds to stimulate his little
brain. His need for touch continued from the moment he left the womb. There was
never a question whether he was bonding with his mother and the wider family.
And there was never a question of his mother not feeling fulfilled. Her life as
an adult continued. No records of postpartum depression here. This is very
important. We in the Western World simply take it for granted that the new
mother will become isolated from her former life and career once her baby is
born. It will become extremely hard to arrange meetings with her friends, much
less daily interaction. She will be interacting with only one person for the
majority her waking time – her baby. All of her activities will be aimed at
pleasing or placating this little person. Of course, we hope that she will be
in love with him, but very few of her needs will be met in this arrangement.
Play dates will put her back in contact with other mothers but they will most
likely compare the latest  educational toys or discuss vaccines or baby
food – not particularly stimulating adult conversation.      

have been done measuring mothers’ hormone levels after birth, and those who
kept their babies very close or wore their babies actually experienced better
levels of hormonal activity postpartum compared to mothers who followed a more
Western or traditional mode of newborn care and had their babies spend time
throughout the day in a crib or cradle. Nature, it appears, had not just our
babies’ welfare in mind when She gave us such helpless infants but She also had
a plan for a mother’s recovery in the weeks and months after birth. It would be
interesting to study the occurrence of postpartum depression in mothers who
practice an ‘in arms’ continuum style of mothering.

is so very similar to my own observations while living with Hmong immigrants in
the 1970s and ‘80s. (See the Primitive Bonding story at this
blog in the June story list.) My own babies also felt ‘soft’ rather than fussy
and stiff, which was Ms. Liedloff’s experience comparing Western babies to
those she observed during her expeditions.
More reading about
continuum bonding:
See: for
more photos from Jean Liedloff

Having a highly trained
obstetrical surgeon attend a normal birth is analogous to having a pediatric
surgeon babysit a healthy 2 year old. ~ M. Wagner

STAY TUNED… This and other stories will be appearing the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:§ Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century,© or “Call the Doula! a diary”© both pending by Stephanie Sorensen

§This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping,” 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.

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