the continuum concept review
Books & reading

The Continuum Concept: the back-to-basics book every parent who wants to get away from modern trappings (and remain sane while rearing children) should read

This was the book that convinced me that I can handle having kids.

You see, I spent the first decade of my marriage fending off questions about children.

I got married at 22, and before that year was out my deeply traditional, profoundly religious in-laws were convinced that I was barren. (The term family planning doesn’t exist in their patriarchy indoctrinated dictionary.)

Later, in a different country with a more individualistic culture, the revelation that I was already married as a 20-something was inevitably followed by, “Do you have kids?” and “Are you gonna have them soon?”.

People were more concerned with the having of children, than with the raising of them.

But my concern was specifically with what came after the first nine months of the process. Though I was 110% sure of my decision to legally commit myself to another person at just twenty-two, I felt I wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of someone who was completely dependant on me.

And the same was true for my husband.

I was raised by a single mom, he was raised by a widowed single mom and extended family. Neither of us felt that we were on secure ground financially or emotionally to take charge of any kind of offspring when we got married.

Or in the twelve years that followed.

I had misgivings about modern parenting.

Kids seemed to be so much work. And yes, I get it that rearing takes a lot out of you, but having grown up around horses, I don’t shy away from hard work.

The stuff that kept me up at night was the amount of “parenting” kids seemed to require. Certainly it seemed more than I was ever exposed to – my mom had a more laissez-faire attitude towards childrearing. Partly because she was a single mom, partly because that’s just who she is.

I came and went from the house from an early age, knew how to fix myself a snack when I got home from school, did my homework without a lot of prodding, and was free to go outside and play.

I don’t know when things started changing, but by the time I was old enough to have kids, there seemed to be a whole lot more to raising kids than I remembered.

I guess in a way it’s the patriarchy rearing its head in the midst of a generation trying to learn new ways for women to be in the workforce and have careers.

When a highly driven and accomplished professional woman puts her whole career on pause, where is she going to put all that energy and drive if not into her children?

So, it seemed that to be a good, modern parent you had to be able to afford a hobby for every day of the week, a nice BMW, train your child in at least one classical instrument and make sure that they could recite the entire first grade syllabus in their sleep before they actually got there.

Let’s not forget that I also worked in baby retail.

The baby department was something that most of my colleagues avoided like the plague. It was big, it was complicated, the thigs on sale were expensive, there was a lot of them, you didn’t know what half of them were for (more like 99% if you didn’t have kids of your own) and there was a high rate of angry customers there.

Selling prams was a whole universe in and of itself, which I dabbled in, and it was more like being a car salesman than a simple retail worker.

The baby department was where I really started hating baby products.

It seemed like everywhere I looked, there were doo-dads and knick-knacks fulfilling made-up needs.

And the parents coming to buy were more like doomsday preppers filling a bunker in case of a nuclear winter than parents setting up a life with a baby in it.

Not to mention that it was our mandate to send every expecing couple home with enough stuff to fill a van. Not to mention push the luxury brand baby stuff on those buying gifts for the newly parented.

Having babies, let alone raising adequate children, seemed so far removed from what I knew that I seriously doubted that I was up for it.

Especially, if it meant that you basically fail before you’ve even started, I didn’t want anything to do with it.

I started exploring the literature around babies to see if there would be any help there.

Most of it was judgemental instructions couched as sensible advice from knowledgeble people.

All those books just confirmed what I’d already seen for myself.

Until I picked up The Continuum Concept.

Working in baby retail meant I’d had it up to hear *waves hand above head* with the materialistic side of having kids.

And all that stuff didn’t seem to make raising kids any easier or the parents any happier – we also used to get those who hadn’t planned on having junior #2 or #3 and had been through the wringer once before.

Wisened by experience, they tended to buy marginally less stuff than the first-timers, but even so they found many opportunities to complain of the expense of having kids.

You would too, if it was your second rodeo furnishing an entire room for a human too small to actually use it and then filling most of it with toys (not to mention renovating it from pink to blue becuase this time it was a boy), buying a full wardrobe of mix-and-match outfits for every occasion, getting a crib as well as a travel crib, choosing a pram that costs more than your cellphone, as well as buying every “what if”-item you can think of.

And that only covers the first couple of years.

It was The Continuum Concept that introduced me to the idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings – and especially babies – require the kind of instinctive nurturing that was practiced by our ancient ancestors.

The author, Jean Liedloff, spent two-and-a-half years in the jungle deep in the heart of South America living with indigenous tribes.

She was astounded at how differently children were raised without all the trappings of modern life.

During her time with the Yequana people, she realised that essential child-rearing techniques like touch, trust and community have been completely undermined in modern life.

I remember reading this book and heaving an existentially deep sigh of relief.

And immediately after burning with vindication.

Because the things she was talking about were EXACTLY the things I had been raising question marks around but gotten very little enthusiasm in response to. Most people just thought that buying all those things were “how you raise kids” and no one seemed the least bit inclined to even question the necessity of it all.

The continuum concept is an idea.

Coined by Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept says that human beings have an innate set of expectations – called the continuum – that our evolution as a species has designed us to meet in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development and adaptability.

To achieve this kind of development, young humans – and especially babies – need the kind of experience to which our species has adapted through natural selection during the long process of evolution.

The continuum exists both as something that we experience generationally, all the way back to the early humans, and as a journey from inside the womb to the outside world.

For infants, the continuum includes:

  • immediate skin-to-skin contact at birth,
  • constant physical contact,
  • co-sleeping,
  • on cue breastfeeding,
  • the caregivers’ immediate response to the infant’s urgent body signals, and
  • the expectations that infants are innately social and cooperative.

1) Being placed in skin-to-skin contact immediately at birth

Liedloff comments in her book that the common hospital protocol of separating the newborn from its mother for procedures like cleaning, measuring, and wrapping, may hormonally disrupt the mother and may be contributing to high rates of post-partum depression.

The natural and logical, continuum for a newborn infant is in skin-to-skin contact with the mother. Newborns can smell the milk of their mother and are equipped to crawl to the breast if given easy access, such as being placed on the mother’s stomach.

2) Constant carrying and physical contact in the months following birth

Liedloff calls this the “in-arms” phase.

Usually, this is the mother or father, but any adult caring for the baby can carry the infant as they go about their day-to-day business.

This allows the infant easy access for nursing and continuous opportunities for sleep, while also providing them with the chance to observe and learn – which infants excel at, as explained in The Fourth Trimester.

Baby-wearing, as it’s known, forms a strong basis of personal security for the infants from which they will begin developing a healthy drive for independent exploration. Exploring their environment, especially when not being carried, will come naturally and the baby will have a strong desire to creep and eventually crawl – typically at 6-8 months.

I’ll admit, in this regard I’ve treated our kid as an experiment!

We never owned a pram but had several baby wraps instead. Our daughter completed her in-arms phase as recommended by Liedloff, and she went from crawling to walking in just two weeks.

I have a video of her sitting on the floor, heaving a heavy sigh and looking at the floor around her. From that moment, she started finding things to hold on to for support, stood up and two weeks later was walking with (and increasingly without) support.

Her physical development has also been strong since she was small.

She’s very physical, understands her body and physical space very well, sat a horse like she was born to it at 2,5 yrs old (unlike the other, older kids who froze up and hunched over when the pony started walking) and has always had a very strong sense of self – which I’m convinced is rooted in her confidence and familiarity of her physical self.

3) Sleeping in the parents’ bed, in constant physical contact

According to Liedloff, allowing the infant to co-sleep until they leave of their own volition (at around two years of age) will support optimal development.

She also describes how bringing an older child back to the parent’s bed to complete this phase (if it was interrupted or not observed) has helped with behavioural issues stemming from an interrupted continuum.

This is the one a lot of people often find strangely amusing, when I explain to them that we a) sleep on the floor and b) all sleep in the same “bed”.

Due to me claiming the second bedroom as my home office, we only have one bedroom in our apartment. We knew this moving in (it was part of the reason for moving into a bigger apartment) but I everyone asked if our daughter will get her own bedroom, and were all sceptical when I said that we’re doing it Japanese style – rooms are designated by use rather than by individual.

And though we still all sleep in the same room, our daughter did get her very own mattress when she wanted her own bed, soon after turning two. Moving house and starting daycare delayed it being put into action by a few months.

But I remember listening to other parents’ stories of getting out of bed throughout the night to tend to crying babies, I could only listen with bated breath and internally sigh of relief because our sprout slept easy because she was near, and we never had to get out of bed to tend to her at night.

She also slept in a baby hammock next to our bed for a while, and that was an absolute lifesaver. She would have slept in it longer but outgrew it mostly when she started moving more in her sleep. Before that though, the baby hammock was a natural continuum (not mentioned in the book) to baby-wearing.

4) Breastfeeding on cue & caregivers immediately responding to body signals

A lot of baby books still advise letting babies “cry it out” and that’s one of those things I always instinctively shied away from. The crying of a baby just has such a visceral effect on my body that I can’t ignore it (or try to).

With the Yequana, Liedloff observed that infants’ urgent body signals – crying, sniffling, flaring tempers etc. – were immediately responded to by caregivers.

And this was done without displeasure or judgement, or invalidation of the child’s needs – yet without showing any undue concern or overindulging the children.

This also included;

  • mothers breastfeeding their babies on cue – the infants themselves regulating their own level of hunger and stopping the feeding when they were full,
  • mothers learning the elimination cues of their babies so that the infants could be moved free of the mother’s body to do their business, and cleaned before being “worn” again,
  • as well as washing together, the baby being almost like an extension of the mother’s body and being introduced to new elements, such as water and washing, through and with her.

Breastfeeding never took off for us, post-surgery and a tight lingual frenulum (not discovered until around age three), were against us.

But we fed her on cue with formula and she ate when she was hungry, and stopped when she’d had enough without us ever measuring a single ounce.

Feeding was still an activity of physical closeness, and today she’s no fussier than any other 4-year-old who doesn’t want her peas touching her potatoes on the plate. She does, however, get a lot of praise for being adventurous with food and unusually open to trying new foods.

If she doesn’t like something, she fervently informs anyone listening that “it wasn’t to her taste” and doesn’t eat it. And yes, we still get temper tantrums around food, just like any other kid!

5) Infants are innately social and cooperative

All this is based on and enabled by the belief, that infants being social and cooperative is something they’re born with.

They also accept that infants have a strong instinct for self-preservation and that they don’t cry or fuss to be a bother or because they’re spoiled, but have a critical need.

Being left alone without physical touch (such as put down alone to sleep) is one such signal for an infant, who’s evolutionary expectations are telling her that as long as she’s in physical contact to another living, moving body she’s being cared for.

To be left alone and not have a caregiver respond to your stress signal is a sign that your survival is at stake – unless you can alert a caregiver.

So, the infant keeps crying until her needs are met.

The Yequana see children as welcome and worthy of being included as full members of the tribe but without making them the constant centre of attention.

Allowances are made for children, such as size and strength, but they participate in all aspects of life in the tribe from the very beginning.

As they grow and mature, they’re given more opportunities to learn and take responsibility for themselves.

I remember Liedloff describing how the Yequana mothers routinely gave over the care of their babies to the slightly older children and that a 4-year-old in full charge of a baby was nothing worthy of note in the tribe.

We’ve endeavoured to treat our daughter by the same principles since the beginning, and now we have a highly empathic and polite little person in the family.

She also gets a lot of comments from daycare about how incredibly helpful she is.

Sometimes to the point of killing you with kindness!

And how she, from the beginning, has been very considerate of others, and especially competent with her youngest peers (who have been as young as 10 months old), helping with feeding, dressing, entertaining and comforting them.

Then there are the compensatory responses.

Liedloff suggests that when certain evolutionary expectations are not met as infants and toddlers, compensation for these needs will be sought by alternate means throughout life.

This results in many forms of mental and social dysfunctions and disorders.

Liedloff really got me to consider that how I treat my child today, is forming the adult she will grow into.

So, I always try to answer her questions no matter how complex the answer is, and encourage her to try things and take responsibility of herself as much as she can and wants to.

Support and help is never far away, but nipping that urge to rush in and do things for her, rather than let her try until she figures it out, is sometimes really hard to resist.

Liedloff argues that we, in modern society, don’t understand the evolutionary expectations and that they’re largely distorted, neglected and/or not properly met in civilised cultures that have removed themselves from the natural evolutionary process – which arguably has been shaping us longer than modern advancements have.

I can’t say if or how different our daughter would have been if we’d used more of the modern philosophies for raising children.

Certainly, both parents and daughter have only benefited from employing the principles of the continuum concept.

And though (as Liedloff says) the Yequana would probably laugh at the idea of books being the source of advice rather than the people with personal experience, this book gave me the confidence to trust my own instincts and gave me reprieve from the unrealistic expectations of modern parenting.

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