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Understanding The Continuum Concept

According to Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept is the idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings — especially babies — require the kind of experience to which our species adapted during the long process of our evolution. For countless millennia, the following experiences were virtually universal for “primitive” babies and children:

  • Natural birth — A birth experience that unfolded according to nature’s exquisitely evolved process, supported by a culture of trust in the inherent wisdom of the birthing mother’s body.
  • Breastfeeding — Babies nursed frequently, prompted by their own internal signals, especially during the first year or two, with less frequent nursing often continuing well beyond two years.
  • Cosleeping — Babies shared their parents’ bed or otherwise maintained direct contact or close proximity to their primary caregivers at night, usually for at least two years before shifting to another configuration (but never to complete isolation).
  • In-arms phase — During the first six months or so, babies were constantly carried in arms or otherwise in physical contact with caregivers (most often their mothers, but also other family and community members, including older children) while the people carrying them went about their normal activities. This allowed them to absorb the sights, sounds, and movements of the culture into which they were growing. The in-arms phase ends when babies begin creeping and crawling, though they benefit from being carried (less frequently) even after they learn to walk.
  • Responsive care — Babies developed high levels of emotional intelligence as their caregivers were present, attuned, and responsive to their signals (squirming, crying, etc.) — responding immediately without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of the babies’ needs, yet showing no undue concern nor making them the constant center of attention.
  • Great expectations — Children sensed (and fulfilled) their elders’ positive expectations, which were based on the belief that children are innately social and cooperative. Also, parents expected their children’s self-preservation instincts to keep them safe, which allowed the children to develop appropriate levels of caution and high levels of confidence, without the interference of parental anxiety and overprotection.
  • Unconditional love — Children felt welcome and worthy in the eyes of their parents and caregivers. Having faith in children’s innate sociality, the elders were never tempted to withhold their love and respect as leverage to enforce good behavior.

Genetically, a baby born today is virtually identical to its ancient ancestral cousins, innately possessing what Liedloff called continuum expectations for experiences like those described above. But due to modern Western childbirth and child-care practices, our children’s continuum expectations are often inadequately met, if not entirely unmet:

  • Medical Birth — Babies commonly experience traumatic separation from their mothers at birth due to medical intervention and placement in maternity wards, in physical isolation except for the sound of other crying newborns. Many (if not most) male babies are further traumatized by medically unnecessary circumcision surgery.
  • Scheduled feeding — Babies’ internal nursing cues are often ignored or “pacified” with artificial nipples. Natural breastfeeding, if any, is completely replaced by “formula” feeding for most babies before their sixth month, despite official recommendations of breastfeeding for at least two years.
  • Solitary sleep — At night, children are separated from their nurturers, usually made to sleep in a separate room. Babies are commonly subjected to traumatic “cry it out” sleep training.
  • Exclusion from society — During what should be the in-arms phase, modern babies are frequently relegated to cribs or playpens with nothing but lifeless toys and gadgets to stimulate their hungry brains. Their exclusion from normal adult activities deprives them of experiences that would build a foundation for easy socialization, thus creating the justification for coercive discipline later in childhood.
  • Disconnection — When modern babies and toddlers cry or otherwise signal their needs, their caregivers often ignore, discourage, belittle or even punish them. Or the caregivers may react with anxiety and excessive concern, leaning on the children to guide their caregiving. Liedloff referred to this role reversal as child-centeredness, which contradicts children’s continuum expectations and makes them anxious. Children expect to have confident, attuned caregivers whose outward attention is centered on community life.
  • Low expectations — Children sense the implicit expectations of their elders, and they instinctively conform to such expectations, positive or negative, as if they were explicit instructions. When they are subjected to overprotection, incessant warnings, strict controls, threats, punishments, rewards, etc., the message is clear: they are expected to get into trouble.
  • Conditionality — Conventional parenting inadvertently teaches children that their self-worth depends on their behavior and performance in various social contexts. The feeling that parental love will be cut off under certain conditions contributes to children’s chronic, low-grade anxiety, which makes them more susceptible to manipulation and mental health disorders later in life.

Evolution has not prepared human children, and especially newborns, for the experiences of modern conventional parenting. They cannot comprehend why their desperate cries for the fulfillment of their innate expectations go unanswered, and they develop a sense of wrongness and shame about themselves and their desires. However, if children’s continuum expectations are fulfilled — precisely at first, with more variation possible as they mature — they grow to be more self-assured and exhibit higher levels of well-being and joy.

Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of “spoiling” them or making them too dependent.

Fortunately, the “broken continuum” of virtually any human being — child, adolescent, or adult — can be healed. This potential is explored in Chapter Seven of The Continuum Concept and was the focus of Liedloff’s work in her later years.

From the Book...

Jean Liedloff loved words and wordplay, which may explain why she used the word continuum with multiple, interrelated connotations, all of which must be understood and integrated to fully appreciate the concept. Here are some excerpts from the section of the book in which the continuum concept is first explored in detail:

…It is no secret that the “experts” have not discovered how to live satisfactorily, but the more they fail, the more they attempt to bring the problems under the sole influence of reason and disallow what reason cannot understand or control.

We are now fairly brought to heel by the intellect; our inherent sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.

…[Determining what is good for us] has for many millions of years been managed by the infinitely more refined and knowledgeable areas of the mind called instinct. … [The] unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly.

What is meant here by “correct” is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light… [etc.]

…The human continuum can also be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed. It includes appropriate behavior in, and treatment by, other people as part of that environment.

The continuum of an individual is whole, yet forms part of the continuum of his family, which in turn is part of his clan’s, community’s, and species’ continua, just as the continuum of the human species forms part of that of all life.

…Resistance to change, no way in conflict with the tendency to evolve, is an indispensable force in keeping any system stable.

What interrupted our own innate resistance to change a few thousand years ago we can only guess. The important thing is to understand the significance of evolution versus (unevolved) change. … [The latter] replaces what is complex and adapted with what is simpler and less adapted.

There is no essential difference between purely instinctive behavior, with its expectations and tendencies, and our equally instinctive expectation of a suitable culture, one in which we can develop our tendencies and fulfill our expectations, first, of precise treatment in infancy, and gradually of a (more flexible) kind of treatment and circumstance, and a range of requirements to which adaptation is ready, eager, and able to be made.

pp. 22-27, The Continuum Concept, Revised edition ©1977, 1985 by Jean Liedloff.

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