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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Why April Licked Her Baby

While watching April, the giraffe, give birth this morning, I thought it was a perfect illustration of new birth and bonding. It was a bit unsettling to watch the baby giraffe fall to the ground and lie there with no obvious movement. The birth of a human is a bit traumatizing but we don’t fall to the ground unless something goes wrong. Then April began to lick her new baby.

I am not proposing we human mothers should start licking our babies, but there is much to be said for licking. We want to think that April is merely cleaning the baby up (and we have better ways of doing that), but research tells us much more is happening. She is bonding and soothing her small (not so small in this case) baby.

One of the most fascinating pieces of research I have come across is about rat mothers who either licked their babies a lot or not much at all.

“There are two different kinds of rat mothers -- those that lick their pups a lot and those that don't. Dr. Meaney found that, under provocation, the high-licking mothers' offspring produced less of the stress hormone cortisol. They are more stable individuals that are not as easily panicked.” (link to source below)

Now, in a dangerous environment, being highly vigilant is not necessarily a bad thing, but given our less life-threatening environment, the result is simply hyper-vigilance and anxiety. It is possible in survival-based environments that less licking is beneficial. “OK, you have arrived and you need to get ready to survive!” You can imagine that if danger were right outside the gate, April would probably not be able to spend much time licking. The interesting thing is this gets passed down from generation to generation. Non-licking mothers raise non-licking children—UNLESS they are put with a surrogate ‘licking mother’ or we help new mothers to understand the importance of bonding. This may include giving them the support they need! Generational patterns can be changed. There is also help for those of us who were raised by ‘non-licking’ mothers!

It really isn’t as much about the licking (thankfully) as the bonding—the touching. Unless your desire is to raise a child who can survive in a world where their life is threatened every day, there is no way you can ‘lick’ a baby too much. What April is actually doing is soothing her infant giraffe and helping him/her (?) adjust to the new world in which he/she (?) had literally landed—with a thud. It was a wonderful thing to watch. I was disappointed that the video ended. I wasn’t as fascinated with the birth as much as the bonding. It actually began when April could only lick the hooves of her baby (the ability to twist her neck around to reach the infant was very cool—and not humanly possible. I think I am glad.)

There is much more to this, but reading the following article is a great introduction. I will be blogging more about this in the future!

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