Truby King and an origin of pervasive anxiety

Human beings possess a strong survival mechanism in the brain, directly linked to our bodies, able to signal Fight, Flight or Freeze.  When threatened our bodies are flooded with adrenaline. This part of our brains, primitive but effective, develops in utero starting at around 7 weeks. A baby, with this strong survival instinct, finds the world a scary place. If in hunger or pain, the child doesn’t know that they are not going to die.  It becomes stressed and makes this known by screaming, and needs to be comforted.  If it is not soothed by words or touch, it begins to develop a brain and bodily system that is on hyper-alert, something it might never grow out of.  

Recent findings in neuro-science show that early experience has a profound effect on the way the brain forms. It senses threats everywhere, and so it works too hard, too often and too long.  It is on permanent alert, fearful of confrontation, always wanting to please. This can in some cases turn into chronic attention seeking. Eternal vigilance” best describes the idea, and it is a lifetime sentence.

In the first part of the last century a New Zealander called Truby King created a nursing service.  The nurses were told to start discipline on day one. Babies should be made comfortable between feeds, but not be picked up, cuddled or reassured – at all.  

My sister and I are part of that generation. We had a Truby King nurse and were trained to have no ataraxia to speak of.

Truby King is best known for establishing the Plunket Society, set up to apply scientific principles to nutrition of babies, and strongly rooted in eugenics and patriotism. In 1917 “Save the Babies” Week had the slogan “The Race marches forward on the feet of Little Children”. In his first book on mothercare, “Feeding and Care of Baby”, Truby King sought to teach mothers domestic hygiene and childcare with the help of a network of specially trained nurses.

The Truby King method specifically emphasised regularity of feeding, sleeping and bowel movements, within a generally strict regimen supposed to build character by avoiding cuddling and other attention. It involved making the child comfortable, but not picking it up at all, whether crying or no. His methods were controversial. In 1914 the physician Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd Bennett publicly opposed his stance that higher education for women was detrimental to their maternal functions and hence to the human race. He also excited controversy, during his efforts to export his methods to Australia and Canada, owing to his views on infant feeding formulas. He believed in “humanized” milk with the protein reduced to 1.4% to match breast milk, against the general paediatric consensus at the time in favour of high protein feeds. The work of the Plunket Society was credited with lowering infant mortality in New Zealand from 88 per thousand in 1907 to 32 per thousand over the next thirty years, although it has since been argued that this was due less to its specific methods than to its general raising of awareness of childcare.

This stuff is thoroughly discredited now. The damage done affected at least a generation.
Why am I telling this story? Because we have to beware of self-promoting “experts” and the fads that are always appearing. Epicureans use common sense. But, in passing, it is Sir Frederick Truby King who is responsible for my interest in Epicureanism and the peace of mind it ought to bring.  Thanks, Fred.

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