Peckham Experiment 9 Infancy


Parenthood is a common experience and Child Welfare a well established subject, so that the reader, feeling himself on a well trodden highway of experience, will not be expecting any new point of view. But here, too, a biological approach presents us with a very different picture from that derived from physiological and clinical studies on which our knowledge of the subject has so far been based.

The biological approach is as yet a difficult one to appreciate because, living as we do in the midst of an environment full of factors that limit the expression of function, we become accustomed to regard the family acting under these limitations as ‘normal’. So that when presented with a new view of the functional possibilities the reader may answer—”But this is not life as I know it”. True as this is of pregnancy, it is, with a few sporadic exceptions, equally true of parenthood after the birth of the child. New circumstances, such for instance as the Centre provides, are necessary before the full function of the family can become self-evident. Man’s habits and his intervention can mask or mar the expression of function according to the conditions with which he surrounds himself.

Let us approach the subject of parenthood as biologists studying function. In conception we have seen the appearance of a new focus of differentiation within the family-organism. We have seen that after nidation in the womb the foetus and mother together constitute temporarily a new entity within the family— ‘the pregnancy’. This pregnancy, following its own contained design, moves by ordered stages towards birth. The child, having accomplished its first close apprenticeship gently tethered to the working-bench shared with its mother in the womb, now emerges a perfected individual as far as its anatomy is concerned. The family-organism has in fact differentiated a new specific organ or ‘limb’.

The old working-bench—the placenta—has been cast aside and the apprentice is now promoted to a freer use of the family workshop. Once born, the infant immediately takes over certain tasks, for example, the control of his own heart beat, circulation, respiration, digestion, endocrine and excretory apparatus. He now approaches life from a new aspect with a wider power of excursion and exploration. But still he is not left to fend for himself—to feed like the new-born amoeba direct from the environment ; he is merely promoted to the next stage of a further long tutelage in mutual synthesis within the family circle.

Where the parents in mating have already become a functioning unity, the child will not only have been conceived within but will be born into the full experiential field of that parental unity : not the influence of one or other parent, whether continuously or alternately operative, but lapped in the quality of novelty arising out of their combined function as a bi-polar organism. In this sense already at birth he might be said to be as old as his parents, for he begins his life from where they have climbed to in their own experience of living [This is true even in a physical sense, for a modern child has been presented in embryo through the metabolic operations of its mother’s body with the products of synthesis of such exotic foods as bananas from Jamaica, pineapples from Brazil—things which were outside the experience of its mother’s mother. These are familiar substances to him at birth—though he yet has to learn to digest them.] and as he grows he shares with them their growing experience. This familiar field for his specific nurtural growth is an integral part of the child’s biological birth-right. Rich or meagre, what his parents yield in experience is as much and as irrevocably his inheritance as is his chromosome complement.

The infant, now anatomically perfect and surrounded by the full flavour of parental experience, is as yet wholly unfacultised. He has no discrimination—only encased in his body a perfect set of new and untried tools with which to fashion his individuality through his own progressive facultisation. All now is grist that comes to his sensorial mill. No barrier of habit, nor prejudice instigating rejection of experience such as may inhibit his elders, intervenes between him and synthesis of the world of the moment. So the child—exquisitely alive and sensitive organ of the family organism—becomes from how on like the coleoptile [The ‘growing point” of the shoot.] of the plant which stirs and draws the rising sap from the roots entrenched firmly in the environmental soil. Thus through the child’s instrumentation the family is led to a further awareness of and brought into closer relation with the ever-changing procession of events in the environment—more strange to the parents than to the child. But though the child now becomes increasingly a contributor to the family development, it is from the sap that flows continuously from the parent roots that he and they are nourished. Cut the coleoptile from the plant and the flow of sap from the roots is curtailed; cut away the roots and the coleoptile withers and dies. The function of the organism as a whole is necessary for the development of each part in mutual synthesis with the environment;—that is to say for health. This experiential field in which the child is cradled is then for parents and child a mutually eductive zone that draws each on: the parents by virtue of the new material acceptable to and so brought in by the child as it grows; to the child by supply to it of nutriment of every sort in continuous process of being rendered specific by the parents.

So birth is not a release into ‘independence’ for the child. It is a weaning from the closely familiarised environment of the womb to one of a wider familiarity about the hearth ; and not merely a weaning for the child but a mutual re-orientation of the whole family. Indeed, the transition from womb to hearth or ‘nest’, though it entails a big physical leap is but a short functional journey, for the organisation of the nest is functionally similar to the role played in pregnancy by the placenta. It is a new ‘zone of mutuality’ appearing with the new orientation of the family. So, as our knowledge grows, we must expect to find that there is a specific and potent endocrinology of the nesting period.

We are familiar with such a functional zone in the very material nest of birds or earth of foxes prepared for this period of parenthood. These are inviolate zones. They are reserved strictly for the excursion of members of the family and jealously protected against the intrusion of foreign non-specific elements. It would seem that with some birds this zone of mutuality—’inner territory’ as it is called by the ornithologist—extends some 8 ft. around the actual nest, within which circle no other bird encroaches or is allowed to encroach during the nesting period— at any rate in the parent bird’s presence. [British Birds. F. B. Kirkman. 35.100. 1940.]

The human family instinctively recognises the family hearth [We use the word ‘hearth’ here in distinction to ‘home’ to which we ascribe a different and wider functional significance. See chapter 13.] as this specific zone of mutuality prepared beforehand for the birth of the child and the time that follows immediately upon it. Evidence of this is seen in the young family’s concern in making due preparations for the baby. The parents act as though it were impossible to spend too much time, thought and money on their purpose during the preceding months. This instinct for nest-building in humans is clearly present, however seriously the provisions of our modern civilization interfere with it at the crucial time of birth and in the early days of lactation. [Some idea of the trend of events that is militating against the early critical stage of ‘nesting’ can be gathered from figures given below indicating the place of confinement of London women during the year 1937. Birth of the child in the home occurred in lees than one third of the total confinements for the year. Two thirds of the families concerned were, therefore, deprived of the biological stimulus to parental function at one of the most critical periods in the family life cycle.]

Voluntary Hospitals 20,579
Borough Maternity Homes 2,409
L.C.C. Hospitals 19,843
Private Nursing Homes 3,440
Total Institutional Confinements 46,271
Borough Midwives 176
Midwifes from Voluntary Hospitals and organisations 7,585
Independent Midwifes 6,858
Private Doctors 5,139
Total Domiciliary Confinements 19,758

Annual Report of the London County Council: Vol. III (Pt. 1) Public Health. 1937

The explanation of the failure to appreciate the importance of ‘nesting’ lies, we believe, in the generally accepted circumstances of present day confinement. The mother, believing that she ought, leaves her house most unwillingly some days before delivery and continues in confinement in strange surroundings for some two, three or four weeks after the child is born. During this time she may see her husband for a short quarter of an hour on the day following delivery, and subsequently twice a week more or less in public till she returns home. As for contact with the baby, in the most favourable conditions she can look at its cot at the foot of her bed between feeds, but, if she is not so lucky the baby, duly labelled with its name and swathed in blankets, is brought to her from another room by a nurse, and after a feed of set duration is carried off not to be seen again till the next four-hourly feed. It is indeed within our experience for a mother to return from her confinement never having seen, still less held, her baby naked, knowing nothing of its sleep and waking periods, nothing of its feeding—-whether for instance it has had a supplementary feed or any medicine while away from her; and it is quite outside our experience to meet a mother who has ever— except by accident—seen the baby’s stools until her return home, although it is in the stools, as we shall see, that the baby writes its record of progress in its first and most critical lessons in digestion.

In these circumstances—which are those of the majority of Mothers in any large well provided modern city—the crucial phase of the nesting process is entirely suppressed. It is not then surprising that the family, thus unwittingly disrupted at the time of birth when the phase of intimacy and exclusiveness is at its height, should give evidence of no more than the pale weak afterglow of a frustrated expression of the nesting instinct— which then seems to all concerned to have no particular meaning or importance. The function of parenthood has been nipped in the very bud.

But, in the Centre we find a pronounced expression of the nesting process. Though before and during pregnancy many young husbands and wives have grown accustomed to a life of sociability and action wider than is usually possible in urban society, immediately after the birth of the child we see both parents withdraw from social activity and become absorbed in their intimate concerns. In other words the pair go into a ‘centripetal phase’. It is as though the family were digesting a full meal of experience; and while doing so were disinclined for other action.

During this time the family is very little seen about the Centre, though they come without shyness and with interest— often eagerness—for their consultations in the intimacy of the physiological department. Above all, the mother, or sometimes both parents where the father is free during the day time, come for the baby’s examination. But they do not stay. They hurry home, wrapt as it were in contemplation of the almost unbelievable wonder of the whole process, as well as of the baby. They do not speak of this. It is how they act. The mother resists being parted from the baby—will hardly let anyone hold it, not even the doctor (biologist) [It must be mentioned that this reluctance on the part of the mother can easily be overcome. The point is that it is there, and should probably be respected in health. In the practice of medical art it is perhaps inevitable that it should be broken down.] with whom she has been in constant contact. The father is loath to be long from the mother; they will not go near the Centre Nursery nor leave the baby there even though they are familiar with it and with the Nursery Sister, and may have an older child using it daily. This picture is so closely reproduced in the writings of observers animals in the wild, where the mother resolutely refuses to leave the nest or lair, and is closely attended upon by the male who often feeds her in the early stages of lactation, or where they take turns to tend the nest, that we are encouraged in accepting it as the expression of biological function, rather than due to any social reticence or the remnant of some bygone taboo.

If birth is a weaning, and weaning a process in which the family proceeding in mutuality is undergoing a process of re-orientation, these first days or weeks of centripetal urge take on a new and profound significance. It would appear that in the weaning from the womb of the new born at birth, an opportunity is provided for an initial immersion of the infant in the full potency of the family quality. Thus, before the infant novitiate wins the freedom of the family nest it is ‘sensitised’ to its new environment and, as it were, receives its cue for mutual synthesis of the experience it will later encounter and through which it will develop its own specific quality—its individuality. How important, then, may be this natural inturning of the family at the time of birth, in giving to the infant its own personal chart to health.

What of the parents during this time? It would seem that their indwelling during the centripetal phase is essential in effecting their own sensitisation to the new experience and in permitting their own orientation in the newly-created circumstances. It gives the other children too, particularly the youngest, time for appropriation of the baby as integral to their family and thus to themselves. What a difference this must make to the child when, for instance, the first admiring visitor arrives to see the baby! It is his baby they are admiring, and he has gained in dignity and importance in having acquired it; rather than having been robbed of his position as centre of the picture by some foreign intruder acquired by his mother outside his knowledge and during her absence from him. For the child this completes naturally and finally his skirt-weaning from his parents, confirming for him his independence of mobility, while making easy and natural for the parents their excursion into a new field of interest in which the older child shares but in which he ceases to be the focal point of their attention. The greater the gap between children, the harder often is the dehiscence of the youngest child from too close parental care. In the coming of a further baby, after a six or ten years’ interval, we have often noted the spontaneous though sorely delayed release of an older child previously locked with its parents in an unresolved psycho-pathological grip.

This centripetal phase of family action is then no inert period. On the contrary, just as the centripetal phase which earlier occurs with mating is a time of heightened sensibility and plasticity of the new-formed family-organism, so this period following the birth of the infant is one of the great formative periods for the family. How important it is, therefore, that there should be some mechanism for making knowledge available to the parents at this time without involving them in new, that is to say, foreign, contacts, or in any social excursions for which functionally they are not yet ready.

In a very large measure the Centre fulfils these conditions. Through the periodic family overhaul and family consultations, contact has already been made and established with the family, not only during the pregnancy but before conception. With each recurring contact the pair have had time to grow more at home, and more able to use the information available. It is natural, therefore, for a young family in the Centre to make fuller use of these opportunities for knowledge at this very time of their heightened sensibility.

Just as might be expected, one of the first visits the mother makes after the birth of the child is to the Centre to confirm for herself the information about it which she has already had from her husband, and to check up on her own post-natal condition.

Forthwith then she goes to the laboratory for her examination and makes an appointment for the next parental consultation for herself, her husband and baby. So important do we consider this time immediately following birth, that this parental infancy consultation takes place directly the mother’s and baby’s first laboratory findings are available, that is to say, some weeks before the mother’s final post-natal examination can take place. As in all family consultations, this consultation is with both the man and the woman biologist, who review the post-natal findings on the mother and baby and give the parents a general outline of the significance of this period.

Having spoken about the ‘nest’ and the meaning of the intimacies it provides, the next subject of importance is that of lactation. While the infant is finding its way in this new territory of the family nest, we find it yet once again provided with its portion of familiarised food for the first stages of the adventure, for its mother’s milk is made from the same blood upon which it fed in utero. Its own mother’s milk is specific to that child. The argument sometimes used that the artificially fed child grows and develops just as well as the normally fed child serves merely to unmask our ignorance of health. Though we have as yet no means of measuring the specificity of biological processes, the evidence of clinical findings alone is sufficient to establish that there is peculiar virtue in the quality of the mother’s milk. There is the baby who does not take infectious disease while fed on the milk of its own mother; the baby with a septic infection—a furunculosis or erysipelas—that no chemical or physical therapy can cure as long as it is artificially fed and which can only be saved by the milk of its own mother—or at poor second best the milk of another woman. Human milk alone allows this baby to mobilise sufficient antibodies to survive and to recover. Again, statistics show for example that during the first year breast-fed children suffer only about half the catarrhal infections of artificially fed children.

The process of lactation in the mother is evoked by the baby who now incites functioning in the measure of its proximity and vigour. It is common knowledge that though the breast has been prepared for lactation by the mutual synthesis of mother and foetus in utero, the flow of milk is sustained by the sucking of the baby. The contiguity of mother and infant is probably of all pervasive significance. We must infer that the mother’s natural impulse to see, to hold, to smell, to cuddle and to kiss her baby at this time is an intrinsic part of the mechanism of functioning. In the almost universal absence of any functional setting for the family, there has as yet been no opportunity fn establishing the accuracy of this inference.

Maintenance of the flow of milk is also largely assisted by the mother’s muscular and circulatory tone, so that her general condition and her activity in the puerperium are of paramount import to her and to the baby alike. For the mother lactation is a powerful stimulus to her internal secretory mechanism causing the womb to contract and her figure to regain its litheness But it is destined to bring about not merely involution of her organs to the non-pregnant state, but her own evolution to a further stage of maturity. We do not know the time necessary for these changes, only that they depend upon the mutuality of function between her child and herself. We do not yet know how this increasing maturity affects the man, but it is unlikely that the highly specific substances produced by the mother at this time leave him unaffected. This also is a matter for future research.

In the womb the foetus was fed directly upon the placental blood with no intervening alimentary apparatus. Once born, the child must feed through its own alimentary canal, all the organs of which are formed and ready for use by the time of birth. But it cannot instantly master the use of these organs, any more than when born it can immediately use its legs to walk, or its eyes to see. It is a learner from the moment of birth just as it has been a learner in the womb, but now it is promoted to a greater degree of individual action. It must use its own lungs to breathe, its heart to direct the flow of blood for itself, its kidneys to excrete—all operations needing a long training in the acquisition of perfect co-ordination. [No clinician lays any great stress on variations in respiration and heart-beat until childhood is well past and stabilising to-ordination has been adjusted.]The same is true of the use of its alimentary apparatus, stomach, bowel, etc. Alimentary digestion is one of the first lessons after birth, and to this the infant’s close attention is given. At first, it takes but a taste and sleeps continually till it is ready for more. For a varying number of days, two to ten or more, according to their combined sensibility, the infant and the mother are establishing the flow of milk, the composition of which is changing from from day to day as the infant sucks. First a little, then more, till the flow is a steady one, during which time the mother’s endocrine balance is being continuously and rapidly adjusted.

But the infant has still to learn the process of assimilation of milk through its alimentary apparatus. So it is that one of the first signs that the biologist looks for in the life of the new-born is its establishment, meaning by this that it has mastered the process of digestion of its mother’s milk.

Establishment is recognised by the general aspect of the infant, which loses what is sometimes an anxious and always a pre-occupied mien and acquires a serenity. Its body fills out; its skin now fits its figure accurately; its eyes open widely when awake and like a satisfied puppy it sleeps deeply and peacefully in the intervals. It has achieved a steady rate of gain in weight, and a consistency—sometimes even a regularity—inaction of the bowel.

In our experience of all types of infant, this ‘establishment’ takes place at any time from 2 1/2 weeks to 3 months after birth – it may be even later in an invalid infant. At whatever time it does occur, it indicates that the child’s alimentary system has established its power to utilise its mother’s milk and that that food has performed the useful service of bringing about a further stage in the development of the infant’s alimentary co-ordination. The mother’s milk has, in fact, been for the child a gentle instrument of education. To these weeks between birth and establishment then, we might well apply the term ‘appetitive phase’ for this primary alimentary co-ordination.’

No value can be placed at present on the time at which establishment takes place, because, where full functioning of the family at and before this period is almost universally in suspension, even the pitch of the infant’s physiological operation is likely to be queered. But keeping in mind the existing conditions of society, the great variation in the time taken for establishment m individual infants on the breast may well indicate the tempo of development of that individual (and/or of that family) for all other co-ordinations due to appear as the child grows, and so afford a hint of the likely rate of response to subsequent eductive factors in the environment and of the likely date of onset and duration of future ‘appetitive phases’ for other co-ordination. This suggestion points once more to the difficulty in preparing any field for biological experiment and to the long term observations the human biologist must envisage in the study of function.

It is not in the infant alone that we see definite changes with establishment. Changes can be seen in the whole family Whereas at birth the parents are satisfied when they know the baby is “properly formed”, now after establishment they are assured that it is going to “grow properly”. This seems to bring to them a slackening of tension and a sense of release. It would not be surprising, therefore, to find that the establishment of the baby corresponded to the turn of the parental tide of social action from its centripetal to a new centrifugal phase. The infant has, in fact, established its functional locus in the nest just as the fertilised ovum established its locus in the womb. From henceforth the child and the parents can uninterruptedly go forward in mutuality, just as the foetus and mother, linked through the placenta, worked in dual control in the womb.

It is at this time that we begin to see the father in the Centre again, taking a serious interest in his own hobbies, rejoining his friends; and to see the mother accompanying him on his off day, watching him at his game; and now, for the first time, the baby is taken to the Nursery to sleep between feeds while the parents are in the Centre.

Meeting the baby

During the weeks that follow, the mother will continue to bring the child weekly to see the biologist. She will begin to appreciate that contacts with changing temperature, with sun and wind, etc., are ‘food’ as important for the baby as is mother’s milk and that they induce new co-ordinations of skin and circu­latory system, nerve impulse, muscle tension, etc. The infant gaining steadily in weight is now extremely busy in the task of growing; its heat production is thus relatively high. If it cannot cool itself through the air-cooling apparatus of its skin—like the car by its radiator—its growth will be checked to keep its temperature within the range of physiological requirements. In the face of over-clothing—all too common at this age —this process of adjustment may go so far as to limit the child’s feeding capacity, and cause it to refuse the breast or to take insufficient. This is a point too seldom recognised, with the result that the infant is taken off the breast which is thought not to suit it.

Baby exploring Peckham Health Centre

While the ‘appetitive phase’ for primary digestive co-ordination was still in progress and the infant had not yet learnt to utilise the available food adequately, it needed to be maintained at a steady temperature. This perhaps accounts for the time-long intuitive practice of swaddling the new born, and we see something very closely akin to it in the refusal of birds and many mammals to leave their young for the initial period after birth. But when establishment is past and the infant is free to concern If with other co-ordinations, it is important that it should experience variations in environmental conditions of light, heat, Timidity, etc. The ‘shortening’ to the knitted woollen garment, the fibre of which holds the heat of the body and tempers atmospheric changes as they gain access to the skin through the interstices of the fabric, finds justification as our knowledge of the infant’s development grows.

Family swimming at the Peckham Health Centre

From now onwards the nature of the clothing is of great importance. So likewise is the opportunity for the baby to use its neuro-muscular system. First the grosser musculature, back and neck muscles that hold the head and balance the trunk, then the larger limb musculature comes into action. The mother’s desire, still present, to hold and handle the baby gives it opportunity to exercise these—to get its first ‘meal’ of muscle experience gained from the spatial excursion of its trunk and limbs. There is no need to fear that the baby will get spoilt by too much attention, for a functioning family progresses as a whole, no emphasis falling on one of its members more than on another. It is from the starved and shrivelled family, the individuals of which lack either personal or social excursion, or both, that the spoilt child emerges. During this period, while the baby is growing steadily, has mastered its first post-natal co-ordinations and is well in every way, vaccination is done. The parents understand that the protection against smallpox is the lesser of two evils and that the immunising substance is an ‘unfamiliar’ substance which the baby is going to ‘digest’ through the medium of its skin; and thus working on the principle of one-new-thing-at-a-time, they not only know that it must be perfectly well, but that it is not be offered new experience of any other sort while vaccination is in progress. For this reason, vaccination at the Centre is done in the pause between establishment and the first steps a weaning from the breast. But already the mother is wanting to move into a wider field and is ready to be active. She comes to the Centre early in the afternoon, goes to the ‘keep fit’ class and swims regularly [Swimming appears to be a natural lactogogue.] leaving the baby in the sun in the Nursery while she is occupied . Through the attraction of the baby she makes new acquaintances. People who have wanted to, but have not liked to do so before now speak to her. Perhaps one she has never dared to talk to herself now makes the advance by admiring the baby. She goes home. She tells her husband. Yes, of course, he knows the husband, but somehow nothing had come of the men’s acquaintance. Perhaps if she were there in the evening they would all meet—then it would be different. Why should she not come? She will try coming out one night, leaving the baby in the Centre’s Night Nursery [Open from 7.30 to 10 p.m. nightly for infants in arms (under two years).

The babies taken home at 6 o’clock are undressed, fed and put to sleep wrapped in a shawl till in a deep sleep, so that by 8 p.m. they can be picked up without waking, put in the pram and brought to the Night Nursery. When taken home they can be put straight into bed, without being wakened. Without some such routine young parents are cut off from social life during the only hours of leisure that they can spend together.] after he has been undressed and put to sleep. She goes to badminton with her husband and there they meet the other couple and all have a very enjoyable evening. She has lost her fear. Perhaps they will become friends.

The nursery at Peckham Health Centre

So through the baby, the whole family field expands and the family relationships extend. The mother is now ready and free to exchange notes and experiences again with her friends—she begins to let them hold the baby. In this way the baby, through its sentient body, gets its first experience of new though friendly touch, smell and many other subtle factors which so far we are not in a position to note ; still less to measure. From now onwards the mother further consolidates her acquaintance with those she has newly met in the vicinity of the Nursery. All these happenings, small and insignificant as they may seem at the time, are already, by widening the parents’ environment, paving the way for the next weaning that is to follow.

Baby exploring


With the baby the weeks pass quickly. The vaccination is over, and perhaps now four months old it is sitting up by itself or standing upon the knee, moving its limbs freely, regular in steadily gaining in weight. It is ready for the next step – the gradual weaning from the breast on to solid food. It is at this point that the biologist again asks for a parental consultation. The time is coming to use the next step in the family’s progress to lay before the parents more knowledge of the principles of weaning. The consultation is a friendly talk between four people with a common interest. There is the baby’s progress during the last four months to discuss, the parents’ comments on their experiences to hear. By this time, it goes without saying that husband and wife are equally interested and involved in each successive stage of the family’s unfolding, so that approach to the next step is easy and natural.

Although much has been written about breast-weaning and many rules laid down for its accomplishment, they all remain in the realm of dogmatic empiricism. Some say weaning should begin any time after the fourth month; others that it should not begin till the ninth month; while it is alleged that the most healthy race in the world continue lactation until the child is two years old [cf.Wheel of Health: Wrench. Daniel.1938].

In a functioning family, the when and how of weaning from the breast presents no problem. It takes place as part of the smooth progression of the family from one natural situation to the next. The mother enjoys her widening excursion; she enjoys her baby; enjoys comparing notes with other mothers and is anxious to move to the next stage which her friend with slightly older baby has reached. So, sooner or later, not because he is losing interest in it, nor like the mother who having found a growing interest clings to her baby in her boredom and holds it back, but according to her own physiological condition and that of the child, according to her sensibility and her own inherent urge, she takes the next step forward.

How then is the weaning to be brought about? Nature, in providing breast-milk for the earlier weaning, has given the cue. It must be by the same method; by the use of familiarised, food for the first step. Some suitable substance from the family table furnished to the family taste; some food that went to feed the brother as she carried and fed her baby. As it sits on its high chair or on its mother’s knee, it has its first taste of gravy from the Sunday joint, broth from the Wednesday’s stew, soup from the Friday’s dinner, a spoonful of custard or pudding from the family’s midday meal—food in some sense already familiarised for that child by virtue of its being the accustomed food of its parents—the food the mother brought to ‘the pregnancy’. [It is instructive to watch some bitches wean their pups. One day, when the time comes, the mother swallows her dinner and promptly regurgitates it before her litter, presenting them with food actually familiarised by predigestion. The first food of our nearest relatives—the monkeys—is chewed by the mother and given to the infant on the finger. Both of these natural processes we regard as examples of familiarisation of the new food.]

The mother watches to see how the baby deals with the new experience; what the effect on its waking time, on the quality of its sleep, etc. Above all, as she learnt to do in the first stages of breast feeding, she looks for guidance to its stool, which will tell her how it has been able to deal with the new food. Perhaps, if the first taste has been gravy from their joint, she will say on her next visit to the Centre: “Baby liked some gravy I gave him, but the next day the stool went darker. Otherwise, he is fine”. She then learns that this is natural, as the liver is beginning to engage in a new operation in the use of bile. This means that the new substance is further educing the digestive processes. Step by step they go forward, small tastes first and then bolder ones, till the baby is taking enough to replace the midday breast-feed with a two-course meal from the family table.

So far so good; protein, starches, fats have all been tried and mastered. Replacement of the two first breast feeds of the day by breakfast will quickly follow and allow the mother greater freedom; or the six o’clock feed will be replaced by a tea-time meal, all the while the infant’s growth and mien, weight, etc., affording a guide. Perhaps by six months the only breast feed is the last one at night and that the mother carries on till the steady curve of weight-increase tells her that even that need is now passing.

Weaning from the breast then is not a question of any ‘system’ of weaning, it does not for the healthy weanling necessitate any patent foods or the medical prescription of a ‘diet’. The family table is the diet sheet, the mother’s urge the prescription, the running knowledge she has been gaining her safeguard, her experience and understanding of the baby’s progress in earlier stages her guide now. For her ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, for the fact that the child can take it and thrive is the best criterion where each family, in the measure of its health, must determine its own rate of progress.

How different from the bewilderment, fear and subjugation to specialist authority in the management of the young child so commonly seen in families the higher their financial (and often intellectual) competence. [ Vide subjugation of the family to the ‘expert’ Nanny.] In modern civilized life, where no call is made upon the responsibility of the growing girl in the daily life of the home, and where there is no chance for her to gain running experience of nurtural processes, she grows up without ‘nous’, the face of what then appears as her lack of ‘natural instinct’ it seems necessary to frame rules of therapy to stop the gap where instinct has worn thin. Indeed, so busy and so capable in applying therapy are we, that we have almost ceased to look for the causes that necessitate it. So we have systems of weaning, monthly charts for diet, etc., forgetting that each child is the product of its own family nurture, and must move forward according to its own specificity and at its own inherent tempo. But is there a developmental sequence proper to the organism, and is there a critical phase for each stage in development ? Does delay in moving on to the next phase matter? We have reason to believe that it does. Let us take as an illustration the failure to grasp the appetitive moment for breast-weaning in the presumably healthy baby kept beyond its time on nothing but the breast—often ten months or more without other food. When offered new food what happens? The child buries its head in the now all too familiar breast increasingly inadequate to satisfy its unrecognised needs, and passionately refuses all other types of food. Neighbours, nurses, doctors are called in to advise and to cajole in into taking food which, had it been offered earlier during the appetitive phase for this advance in digestive experience, would have been approached with an eagerness and enjoyment resulting in smooth rapid digestive co-ordination. We have old wisdom to relearn : “Now good digestion wait on appetite, and health on both”. [Macbeth III. IV. 38]

It may be objected that once breast-weaning has been achieved no difference can be seen between the smoothly weaned baby and the one in whom the process had been delayed. Perhaps no immediate difference can be discerned in the digestive functions, but a difference is evident in the functional excursion of the baby. When the opportunity to develop is not present at the moment that the child is ready to go forward, then the child goes into what can be called a refractory phase. During this phase it is not only the next stage in alimentary digestion that is impeded, but the next stage in digestion in any direction, so that whatever co-ordinations are laid down in the interim are blurred and uncertain. It is as though the body’s attention—like a search­light picking out, the formal path of function on the sheet of life —were suddenly thrown out of focus, giving hereafter but a pale inconclusive tracing of indefinite uncertain action to be reinforced in later life by the hard lines of compensation. It would seem to matter, then, if the appetitive phase for each co-ordination were missed, for thereby progressive specificity, the hall mark of function, has not been educed in the child.

It must be remembered, too, that we know little about the laying down of diathesis that so largely determines the direction from which the individual will be open to future attack, and less about the ultimate origin of many diseases and disorders that only become manifest in later life. Long-term researches alone can give answer to these questions, but it is our contention that it is in the timely, sequential and ordered laying down of the earliest co-ordinations, in foetal life and in infancy, that we must look for the foundations of health.

By the time the baby is ready for its third meal it is already to some measure skilled in the digestion of the family table-food, and there can now be added to its diet elements that may have been missing from the family table. It is now ready for and can with advantage share in the wider, less specific experience of the Nursery tea. There, joining with the others, it sits at their own low tables and beside the older children quickly becomes skilled in the use of its table implements.

Weaning at Peckham

From now onwards perceptible changes appear less rapidly ; the infant’s course is set fair for some months to come. The constant attention of both parents and biologist is relaxed, mother, though still bringing the child regularly for overhaul, does so less frequently ; from now onwards it is seen about once a month, By now also the mother may have taken her place on the rota of mothers responsible for the preparation of the Nursery tea. The vegetables, fruit and milk—that morning’s milk—comes straight from the Centre Farm for the Nursery. These are what she used to buy for herself from the Cafeteria while she was pregnant. Gradually she begins to take further notice of their quality- “Why the milk turns to junket before you can pour it to the bowl!”—hers at home takes twenty minutes or more and sometimes won’t turn at all. She wonders why. It is ‘live’ milk and she learns something about ferment action and the vital properties of food. ”Then there is a difference between ‘live’ milk and pasteurised milk?”—and she finds out the various reasons why milk is pasteurised. Not all of them satisfy her, for she has already begun to know something about the quality of food. Another day perhaps she learns a new recipe. Her husband would like that too; she will try it at home. So the diet of the family table may be enriched and its deficiencies gradually made up through the baby—coleoptile of the family.

The mother’s interests branch out in other directions. Perhaps she has decided to go to next month’s dance with her husband. She must remake her evening dress and there is the workroom next to the Nursery. With other mothers working there she finds just the help she needs, and learns to use the sewing machine. They have been making curtains for the theatre that afternoon …. She could make her own more simple curtains.

So she is led on by the availability of facts as and when she is making contact with things that are of interest to her, all the while gathering knowledge, capacity and courage, which, gradually assimilated, are transmuted by her into the substance of their home.

In this form of individual and topical education there is nothing to intimidate the diffident, no theory to put off the practically-minded nor to act as an escape for the theorist; only otherbabies a little older than hers, other mothers a little more knowledgeable, a little more capable and practised than she, all moving in an environment relatively rich in opportunity for action, where knowledge concerning topical happenings is continuously available according to the capacity of each to take and to act upon it. So, from the nest, the home grows out still further.


Thus in the Centre by the time ‘skirt weaning’ is approaching we begin to see families acting with growing confidence and understanding. Practice in matching their knowledge with action evokes in them courage, a deeper understanding and ability to act with spontaneity in the future in a way that appears to be prompted from an ‘instinctive’ or ‘intuitive’ source.

Time has passed quickly—the child now almost a year old is walking: uncertainly at first, but walking. He may already have been in the baby’s swimming pool with his mother; very soon now he will be able to go in daily with the group of children of his own age. In the Nursery are children up to 5 years of age and their range of activity includes the gymnasium in the early afternoon before the school children come, the infants’ swimming pool, the use of scooters, bicycles and skates, puzzles, letters, drawing boards and all the usual nursery equipment. It is a screened and sunny corner of a long open-air corridor which by the use of movable glass partitions can be extended and altered, and which allows of easy access to the gymnasium and the babies’ bath. By eighteen months or earlier the child slips his mother’s hand at the door and runs into the Nursery. There is no hesitation. Up the 4 ft. steps he goes, down the slide—a polished plank without sides—over and over again, untiring, till in three weeks or so he can mount with speed and come down feet first or head first according to his whim. He has passed the appetitive phase, so well known to everyone, for stair climbing. It has been superseded by step and ladder climbing and the delight in sliding down the slippery plank so high for him.

Older children in the gym at Peckham

Or perhaps it is the bright ball nearly as high as himself that fascinates him. Day after day threading his now by no means uncertain way between the other children of the same age or older, he will bounce it, run after it, push it, hold it between his two hands, unconsciously sensing its mass, weight and resistance, learning all the time his position in his expanding world.

The older children from the Nursery go to the gym before going into the babies’ pool. He stops to watch them undressing near the clothes pees. It becomes natural to do the same, and in two or three months’ time he has joined them in the big gymnasium.


In the gymnasium, so far unfortunately equipped only with apparatus designed for older children and grown ups, the children run, climb, swing from the ropes that they can reach, roll head over heels off rolls of matting or off the top of a low buck and walk up and down 8 ft. long slides placed at a low angle. They love these and will often walk up them on hands and toes with as much enjoyment as they slide down. The younger or newer children climb the ribstalls gingerly at first and each time higher. The more advanced climb the ‘window frames’—a structure 10 ft. high consisting of horizontal and vertical wooden bars spaced at 24’ in. intervals and standing 2 ft. out from the wall. This the children delight to climb, then hang by their hands, sometimes for several minutes at a time swinging their legs, or occasionally resting them on the bar below, all the while with child-like detachment watching all that is going on below. The more adventurous will climb to the top of the 10 ft. frame and stay there free from interference, shouting down to the others.


Such a picture may suggest danger and confusion but in fact each child goes about its business with neither collision nor accident. An order not authoritative nor mechanical but of a functional character prevails. The child surrounded by others all engaged in their own activities, is not only unconsciously spurred on to similar types of action, but is learning the while to act himself in mutual association with his companions. In an age when the small family or the only child is the rule, the Nursery is the place where the child at an early age contacts other children of various ages—the same age and older than himself. In a big family, at the table, at play, in the daily comings and goings, there is constantly called forth, not a recognition of other people’s needs or of one’s own needs—both of which are forms of egotism—but a recognition of the total situation. This is an all embracing appreciation of the needs of each member of the family in relation to the family as a whole. Thus in the large family an altruism, not of a moral order but of actual physical constitution, is born.

It is in the family nest that we must look for the first dawnings of this ‘physical’ altruism. As the hen astraddle her eggs will shift the outer ones in and the inner ones out, ensuring to all warmth for development, so later the young birds in the crowded nest will move with patterned order from the hot centre to the cool periphery and back again as their sensibility demands.

But it seems as though man, somehow become devoid of virility and ignorant of the implications of his devitalisation, is reducing this family environment to poverty and to monotony by stocking it with one or at most two children. Heedlessly he is creating for those one or two an environment in which they are doomed to grow in less than optimal health; where the family circle is so small that the child never has any practice in accommodating himself to varied activities within it; where the parents, relatively unoccupied and with their own development arrested, clear the field for the child to hold the centre of the stage, devoting themselves to it and living its life for it according to the tempo of their own meagre understanding of what is at stake for them all.

The healthy child is continually exploring the world about it with its senses, limbs and brain. In acquiring one new co­ordination after another it is continually gaining new powers, new skills and knowledge. It would seem that each appetitive phase for new co-ordination appears in orderly sequence and has a strength and duration characteristic of that particular child. Certainly in the gymnasium the succession of activities in which each child engages appears by no means fortuitous. Broadly speaking, the sequence in early years is fairly similar in all children, though as the child grows older it begins to differ considerably from child to child.

Of this inherent sequence of development of the faculties we as yet know little. Montessori’s outstanding contribution to Education seems to us to lie in the fact that she first recognised the presence of such a sequence in children from 3 years onwards. and brilliantly designed instruments to promote the specific facultisation of certain of the finer co-ordinations of eye, ear. finger, etc., of which her colour cards, bells and primary cylinders, and devices for the early apprehension of number are examples.

The ‘appetitive phases’ [ Dr. Montessori speaks of the ‘sensitive periods’ of the child’s development. As far as our knowledge goes, the sensibility of the child is in continuous operation, but the impetus to action is more conspicuously present at some times than at others. It is for this reason that we have called such phases, wherever we have found them in the development of the organism or of the individual, ‘appetitive phases’- that is to any times when an appetite for action is declared.] from birth to 2 1/2—3 years, during which time the grosser co-ordinations are being laid down, have not to our knowledge been studied at all until the Centre opened up the opportunity for doing so. Time has not allowed us to make any definite statement; no science of the subject has yet been developed. We only know of variations from one infant to another, from one family to another, as we have already indicated in the variations in time of ‘establishment’ of each baby. At present these variations can tell us little, for they represent the expression of natural variations in development confused with the expression of the pathological results of compensated disorder—in the child and in the family. Not until we have the opportunity of watching the behaviour of children brought up from infancy in fully functioning families all the members of which—parents as well as children have ample scope for action appropriate to each stage;and not until we have been able to devise some methods of measurement of function, can a study of the sequential developmentof the facultiesbe surely grounded.This study of the sequential emergence of functional co-ordination after birth is in our opinion of as great an interest and importance as is the study of embryology from which is gained knowledge of the sequential development of the individual’s features before birth.Herein lies the promise of a rational basis for a future science of Education.

As in all biological processes, the law governing the sequence of the appetitive phases will be found inherent in the organism itself. As biologists therefore it is our business to hold ourselves responsive to the emergence of this law and pliable to its indications. But, unless the environment holds the wherewithal for development, unless the specific factor destined to educe the specific co-ordination is present during the natural appetitive phase, the process will be delayed—often indefinitely. The prevalence of ‘skirt-bound’ children, deprived of sun, air and natural changes in temperature, and starved of motor and sensory experience during the first years of life, is proof that as we look at the average child we are looking merely at a pathological expression of early facultisation.

In the Centre where the parents have during infancy been noting the emergence of one appetitive phase after another, they grow to be more alive to and expectant of the child’s progress. A mother will know of her son’s first visit to the gymnasium, and, standing back a little so as not to distract him, she will watch from the upper window and be as interested as is the biologist to see what he will do. That evening she will tell her husband all about it, and as the weeks and months go by she will often come to the window at odd moments. Probably in a very few weeks he will go from the gym to the learners’ bath, and here too his mother and her friends will come to watch. So the mother who came to the window first in fear, gradually learns to trust in her child’s capacity to act for itself. She too is learning to be an observer pliant to the natural and spontaneous process of the child’s development.

In the learners’ bath, with water not more than 10 inches deep to begin with, the children first spend some time discovering how to walk, for besides treading against the resistance of the water they have to learn to negotiate the shallow steps leading down to it and to keep upright on a slippery bottom. Later, they discover how to sit or kneel down in the water and to get up again without falling over. Later still, they begin to float on their tummies moving along with their hands touching the bottom. Or, when the water is a little deeper, they will throw themselves into the air from the top step—about 1 ft. high-falling flat on the water face first.

A few of the very young children unaided have discovered how to float on their backs. This intriguing experience requires a thorough knowledge of the water, for they must come to know ‘with their bodies’ rather than with their minds that the water will support them. This knowledge has come to them through months of playing about in and with water shallow enough for them to touch the bottom with their hands. From the same experience, and from the game of blowing bubbles with their heads under water, others have found out for themselves how to swim. This achievement had its unexpected side, for it appeared first as a wholly underwater art—alarming because the under water swimmers do not at first know how to come up to the surface if they find themselves out of their depth!

So here, as in the gymnasium, there has been the chance of many a ‘meal’ of free movement, essays in co-ordination which have been the astonishment of onlookers, to say nothing of momentary breathless pangs of anxiety to the observer always with the Nursery children.

It is important in describing the activity of both the gymnasium and the infants’ pool to recall the conditions we postulated for the educement of function and hence for the study of function; namely, the necessity of many and various chances in the environment, and of many and various degrees of maturity in the company (chapter 4). This is true for the infant as for the adult. The provision, for instance, of a gymnasium no matter how fully equipped, for the use of an only child or for one or two children of a family would probably lead to little more than its desultory use. It would be unlikely to induce continued and progressive action.It is the presence of other children of various ages, all moving spontaneously and by their actions inventing and demonstrating new uses for each item in the environment, that gives impetus to adventure and affords the educative circumstance.

We too are continuously learning our lesson as we watch the children so early exercise their capabilities. We have found that no child left alone in these circumstances will attempt what it cannot safely achieve. No accident of any kind happened to any child under five years of age during the period the Centre was open. It is important to note that no un-skirt weaned child was allowed to go in the gymnasium—also that it never wanted to go. The child’s own courage is indicator for it of what action is to be attempted. But where the grown-up, mother or instructress, or an older child acting as ‘little mother’, urges, helps, presses or cajoles, the child’s natural impetus to action and to exploration is confused; its inherent reliance upon itself is transferred to the solicitous busybody who is hanging upon its every movement. It is then that the accident will happen.

How clearly now we see the true significance of ‘skirt weaning’ as a family progression rather than one involving the child alone. It is the mother’s resumption of her own interests, and their expansion in her growing social life, that gradually diverts her attention from exclusive focus on this child whose urgent need for increasing independence we have seen. As the child ceases to grasp his mother’s skirt, she steps forward to new interests. This weaning, like those preceding it is mutual and involves re-orientation of the whole family.

How different is the picture where the skirt-weaning of the child has been delayed. We see it in the family who come to join the Centre with a child three or four years old and who halting and with difficulty get as far as the first family consultation. This unskirt-weaned child sits on the knee of his worried mother, fitfully burying his head in her coat and vacillating between tears and temper; or from his maternal stronghold of defence—for she is instant to shield him—peeps furtively at the screws and handles of the big dental examination chair which he had seen going up and down in a mysteriously fascinating manner during the family’s enrolment talk with the biologists. Anxiety lest the child should misbehave, together with a certain embarrassment at her lack of ‘control’ as she in confusion passes him over to the father, prevents the mother—often both parents —from hearing anything of the consultation to which they have looked forward. ‘Shyness’ prevents the child from making the excursion to the chair for which he longs. Result—the whole family leave the consultation without having heard anything. With a sense of frustration they return home, robbed of experience they could have digested, only to draw in the family belt by one more hole against the functional starvation that the hold-up in the weaning process is bringing upon them all. Often the mother quickly senses that if they come to the Centre she will inevitably have to relinquish her hold on the child. The habit is too ingrained, the strain too great; she dreads the ordeal and they are never seen again. The prevalence of this failure in the process of nurture is one of the most common causes of families leaving the Centre. For them it has come too late.

There are some families with a skirt-bound child whose courage is great enough to carry them over the initial stages of anxiety, doubt and fear. Led by what they recognise to be the needs of the child, they seek for him the companionship of other children in the Nursery and finally, to their surprise, come to find themselves also involved in unlocked for experience and adventure.

But how rare is the family which, when it encounters chances, can immediately turn them to its opportunities, because its health is such that all its members—mother, father and children alike—have moved forward from one weaning to the next in smooth progression, each stage an occasion for increasing joy and interest to all. But of a growing number of families this is now beginning to be a true picture. Particularly is this so in the case of children born within Centre membership. A short work has sufficed to show us the use of the diverse environment of the Centre to parents with whom we had come into contact early in their family life This,we now know, is how the family will develop, given the chance to do so.