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Married Life: on comfort and separation anxiety

Studies have shown that a baby's heart rate decreases when the baby is held by his or her parents. What a marvellous survival mechanism.

As new parents, it didn't take Mr T and I long to learn that Baby A's favourite place in the whole, wide world was in our arms, where she could rely on us to provide the rocking and bouncing that Her Dictatorship so desires. We ignored every admonishment from well-meaning, far-more-experienced relatives and/or friends: "You'll spoil that baby by carrying her all the time. Don't get her used to being carried/rocked/cuddled."

The worst thing we could possibly do, we were told, is to keep her cocooned in our arms for any longer than was absolutely necessary. Feed, burp and release - no exceptions.

Neither of us are very good at heeding advice that doesn't appeal to our vision of parenthood. Besides, as my mother so kindly pointed out, we'll only have a year at most to cuddle Baby A before an independent streak will kick in, coupled with a curiosity about the world, and all she'll want to do is wiggle and squirm her way out of our arms and head straight to the various temptations that will surround her in her journey of discovery. Cuddle while you can, we figured.

Last month, I came across an article published in The New York Times that delved into the findings of a recent study conducted by a neurobiologist at Japan's Riken Brain Science Institute. Dr Kumi O Kuroda's study, published in the Current Biology journal, found that when babies are embraced by their mothers, fathers - even grandmothers - their heart rate drops immediately.

This trait, believes Kuroda, is "specific to infant physiology". Just three seconds after babies six months and younger were cradled by their mothers, their heart rates slowed in a fascinating "calming response" that proves what I have been saying to Mr T since I met Baby A: our manipulative little dictator knows what she's doing.

I'm Baby A's safe haven and, incredibly, she knows it. I am the definition of comfort to her, her touchstone, her true north, regardless of the doubts in my head, regardless of whether I know what I'm doing. I may have forced her to eat bland mush earlier and used the hated nasal aspirator to clean out her nose as she shrieked and writhed and dared to dress her in pyjamas when she wanted to sit up and play. Yet, despite all these transgressions, she forgives in an instant.

Now that she's almost eight months old, Her Dictatorship seems to be in the throes of "separation anxiety", which is the phrase experts use to describe the eyes that well up with tears when a mother - or father - moves out of the direct line of sight of their baby. Baby A is a pro at it, searching for me if I dare take a bathroom break, reaching for me almost in desperation, it seems, every time I drop her off in the morning and kiss her goodbye.

Apparently, the panic she exhibits is a normal emotional stage of development. And, if you think about separation anxiety in evolutionary terms, it makes sense: a defenceless baby would naturally get upset at being separated from the person who protects and cares for her.

What I'd like to know is how exactly does Baby A know, already, that this big, bad world she lives in is not such a safe place after all and that her father and I are the ones meant to protect her?

And how is it that she knows this, and yet seeks comfort in our arms even when the reason she's upset is because of something we have or haven't done?

Baffling, I tell you.

Hala Khalaf is deputy Arts&Life editor at The National



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