October 26, 2021   5 mins

It is 2am, and the baby is screaming and crying in the other room. Alone in his crib, he is inconsolable. There have been months of nights like this. The new parents have the best intentions, but they are at their wits’ end. Yanked out of a sleep only recently obtained, the baby’s father pulls himself from bed, thaws and warms some of the mother’s milk, and offers it to his son. The baby takes it eagerly, and is satisfied — but also now very much awake. If left, he will cry.

And so the father rocks his son back and forth, holding him safely with one hand. Now fully awake himself, he pulls out his phone, and falls into the abyss. His complete attention is on the screen, its blue light seeming like a balm but acting like a bomb, destroying any natural tiredness. The baby, unable to find his father’s gaze, reaches for the phone. The father, jarred into consciousness, pulls up an animated show created for infants. He puts it in his child’s view. The baby looks. He laughs. The characters on the screen do not respond. The baby frowns. He has no friends here. It is a long time before he falls back asleep.

For all its conveniences, the modern age has not removed the challenges of parenting: the exhaustion, the constant demands, the necessary subordination of one’s needs. In fact, in many ways it has intensified them. Parents’ lives are busier — both with necessary things, like work, and tempting distractions, like Instagram. And so to get through the night, we turn to technological solutions like breast pumps, or the expensive advice of sleep trainers. Meanwhile, we spend our days in front of screens, eating food so processed it barely resembles food anymore, and so brings less nutrition and more risk into our lives.

In our new book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, Bret Weinstein and I argue that humans are the ultimate generalists, with such incredible capacity to create new niches for ourselves that we have created a rate of change even we cannot keep up with. And so our brains and bodies are out of step with the 21st century. This mismatch has given rise to all sorts of conditions and diseases that would have been unknown in antiquity — from the widespread need for orthodontia to obesity. A lot of these disorders have their roots in our earliest years.

As a species, we are social and long-lived, with generational overlap and long childhoods. Some other animals are similar to us in these regards — elephants and orcas, parrots and crows — but humans seem to do everything more. We live in larger groups, with the longest post-reproductive lives, and have the longest childhoods.

If a foal can gallop within a day of its birth, why does it take a human baby months just to learn how to roll over? Childhood is not an error, or a waste of time. It is when we learn to be human. Our giant brains, and our ability and need to connect with other human beings, take years to mature. Very early, we need to be assured of our safety. Soon after, we need to be tested, stretched to our limits.

But the baby introduced earlier may rarely be taken outside, never feeling the sun on his face, or experiencing the minor discomfort of being momentarily cold. That experience can offer not just valuable evidence that discomfort can be recovered from, but also enables the reassuring embrace of his mother as she holds him close, warming him, protecting him. As the baby grows, he learns to self-soothe, to a point. But on a path that is cleared of all challenges, he will not learn what real risk is. Nor can he know the true depth of his parents’ love. They have so successfully cocooned him, including from their own selves.

Imagine a baby from 15,000 years ago, or 150,000. Before the advent of farming, but after we were fully modern at the anatomical and physiological level. We had language and fire and tools, were cooking our food, living in community, exploring ideas around campfires. Sometime late in that time span we began to make art, to hold funerals, to have rites of passage.

Such a baby would have been snuggled close in the embrace of family and friends, never alone, never isolated. A baby alone in that environment was at high risk; he would have been in actual contact with his mother, or another caregiver, for most of his early life. But as he grew, he would have been allowed more and more freedoms. He would have watched the older children, and played around the fire, and handled sharp tools. He would not have been completely protected from harm, but he also would not have been completely protected from exploration. When his body achieved adulthood, his mind would too: he would be anti-fragile, unlike today’s 18-year-olds.

In A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide, we argue that though modernity has made us healthier in many ways — and expanded our minds — there are exceptions. We do not argue for a return to a simpler time — such a prescription has many problems, but it’s also impossible to fulfil. But we do argue for some caution in adopting all the modern advances, as many of them bring hidden costs, which become visible with an evolutionary lens.

Do not expect tiny babies to sleep alone. It sends a confusing and terrifying message: nobody has your back. If you provide utter reassurance, while they are tiny, that you are there for them, then — far earlier than their coddled counterparts — they will be confident enough to explore on their own, to take and manage risks. They also sleep better — which means you will, too.

Do share parenting as much as possible; early on, this may mean pumping breast milk to save for later. This tool of modernity is so freeing for many women. A mother’s milk is best for nutritional, immunological, and bonding reasons, but the pressure to provide it at all hours can be a burden; sometimes allowing a baby’s father, or another caretaker, to provide it is a gift.

But here is an example of where moving away from our ancient ways may have hidden costs. What else besides nutrition is stored in that milk? There’s some evidence that breast milk contains circadian cues. If true, then milk delivered at 2 am, straight from the breast, would not only satiate the baby, but also send the signal that it is now time to sleep. Milk expressed at noon, in contrast, would send the opposite signal. When feeding the baby at night, then, it’s best to provide nighttime milk. It won’t hurt, and may very well help.

Do not put screens in front of children, especially screens that have animate objects on them. As Bret and I posit in our book, babies and young children who are entertained by screens will learn to flatten their emotional range; they do not expect humanoid forms to respond to them.

Do eradicate all blue light from the space where you and your baby sleep. Early morning sunlight is so very blue, and those who are regularly exposed to bright outdoor light early in the day are more productive, and more fit, than those who are not. But expose yourself to blue light late at night, when our ancestors would have been gathered around a campfire — or navigating by the pale light of the moon — and find yourself struggling with sleep, and therefore with productivity, creativity, and health.

Do feed your children real food, tempting though it is to lean on processed meals. A healthy person has an incredible diversity of gut flora, obtained from the consumption of whole foods, with as short a supply chain as possible. An unhealthy person ingests shelf-stable products containing multi-syllabic ingredients synthesised in a lab. In house sparrows, eating a diet that is out of whack makes the birds slower to learn, quicker to anger, and generally more stressed. What are the chances that humans are completely unlike house sparrows in this regard?

Do move your body, and encourage your children to move theirs. We are embodied beings. Our screens may compel us to believe that we are mere brains in jars that can manage to type sarcasm and anger and emojis — but we are in fact more, and far better, than that. And it is during our long, lovely childhoods that we find out how connected and creative we can be.

Heather Heying is an evolutionary biologist based in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book, co-authored with Bret Weinstein, is  A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life