Natural Health & Children

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By Mark Lundegren

I recently received a note asking about raising children in the HumanaNatura natural health program.

It was a reminder that we have offered only modest amounts of guidance elsewhere on the care and natural health needs of children, which is my subject today and an opportunity for additional work for the community in the future.

As you might expect, the topic of raising children naturally begins before conception.  It starts with the healthy pairing of women and men for child-rearing, requiring us to ensure both sexual attraction and personal compatibility.  By compatibility, we must mean this to include a strong mutual commitment to healthy and nurturing family life.  This may seem obvious, but such commitments are often inadequately made by people today, despite their clear and beneficial nature. 

In modern and many traditional forms of coupling, one or both of these essential ingredients of healthy pairing often are overlooked, with tremendous consequences for individual, married, and family life.  As divorce rates approach or surpass fifty percent and the number of single parent households grows rapidly in many industrialized countries, and assuming this is merely an overt indicator of our failure to prepare ourselves for the work of child-rearing in modern times, our pairing practices seem ripe for re-examination and fresh approaches today.  In another article, entitled “Sexual Health Naturally,” I explore the topic of healthy pairing in greater detail.

When good pairing and a mutual commitment to optimal family life are achieved between women and men, a strong and natural human foundation is formed to enable healthy children and an enriching social environment for all members of the family.  This foundation both reflects and promotes a mutual and healthy promise to work and share together in the joys and responsibilities of family life – even amidst the challenges often enumerated in traditional wedding vows.  Regardless of the nature and structure of the marriage, each prospective parent’s commitment to healthy family must be in place before having children and endure until after the couple’s children become adults themselves.  Without this, the health and well-being of children are placed at risk. 

Ideally, this foundation and commitment to healthy and natural child-rearing is supported by an extended natural network of family and friends, who can share in the life and work that is involved in raising a family.  If not, even before conception, couples can begin to fulfill their commitment to healthy life by working together to build a strong and health-oriented network of family and friends around them.  This can include actively building new relationships and nurturing existing ones, relocating to a new area and finding work that is more family-friendly, and making other changes in our personal and physical environment to make it more conducive to the natural care and raising of children.

Whatever steps may be needed to create a supportive environment, our network of family and friends must be strong and flexible, ready to respond and adapt to the challenges and opportunities that family life inevitably present, which can be much greater and more urgent once children are born.  Perhaps surprisingly to many people trying to be modern super-parents today, high incomes and time-intensive careers are not necessary parts of our nature foundation for healthy families, and may even undermine the health of children.  Moderate but reliable resources are all that is needed to foster healthy and health-oriented children, and to help them grow and develop into intelligent and caring adults.  Strength of character and commitment, as well as adequate time for nurturing and teaching, are far more important to healthy family life than high incomes and consumption levels.

After conception, but before childbirth, much can be done to ensure the natural health and development of a child.  These steps of course include great care in the diet and lifestyle of both mother and father.  It includes creating a loving and healthy environment before birth and that patiently awaits the developing child, in this way nurturing and promoting the health and development of the child before she or he is born.  Importantly, post-conception health includes ensuring a low-stress environment for the mother and unborn child, including low noise levels (since sound is greatly amplified by the fluids that surround a fetus), as well as loving sounds and voices (since emotional and cognitive imprinting begins well before birth and brain development overall is thought to be influenced by environmental sound patterns).

HumanaNatura does recommend early and regular physician or health care provider visits to ensure a healthy baby and pregnancy.  In some countries, pregnancy care has become or has already long been excessive, with pregnancy treated far too much like a medical condition.  Even though screening for maternal and fetal medical issues should be a part of pregnancy care, most of this care should be directed at preparing the mother and family for childbirth and early child-rearing. 

Childbirth itself is an area most apt to be treated like a medical event today and where more natural alternatives are clearly in order.  While proximity to health care is certainly desirable, childbirth in healthcare facilities is often far less than optimal.  Essential features of healthy childbirth include: the presence of husband and key family members, a supportive and comfortable environment for the delivering mother, soft lighting and quiet surroundings, and the opportunity for the parents and family to bond at length with the child immediately after birth.  Many health care facilities offer few of these features, though efforts have been made in this direction.  Midwifery, and home birth and alternative birthing centers, are thus compelling options for many families.

Once born, the long work of ensuring the natural health and development of a child begins.  This process is similar in many ways to promoting natural health in an adult, but there are important differences, reflecting the extended but natural period of development that is our human childhood.  Using HumanaNatura’s three-part framework for natural health, and with the consent of your child’s physician, here are some specific natural child-rearing practices to consider, all aimed at fostering health and well-being in your child:

Natural Diet 

For optimal health, infants need to be breast-fed until physiologically ready to be weaned and can manage regular natural foods.  The science of natural breast-feeding and the experience of many families are quite clear on the benefits of this practice, although it is a decidedly inconvenient approach for modern parents caught in the trend of two-income families.  Modernity notwithstanding, breast feeding is the natural diet, and a key part of the natural experience, of a young infant.  Breast milk fosters young immune systems and physiological development, and provides all essential nutrition during the early weeks and months of life.  Breast feeding also has immediate, lasting, and health-promoting psychological benefits for both child and mother, and is strongly recommended by HumanaNatura.

The exact point where weaning should begin will vary by child and circumstance, and is best a topic taken up with your family’s physician, but beginning this process at one year of age is often a sensible rule of thumb. It is true that women in nature quite often breast fed for up to four years, but there were extenuating circumstance that made this practice necessary then and less compelling in our time.  In our often nomadic life in nature, a woman could only physically carry and care for one child at a time.  Since breast feeding stops ovulation and provides a natural (though not 100% reliable) form of birth control, it was thus was used in pre-settled life to prevent new conceptions before existing children could walk comfortably with the adults of the tribe.

Once a child begins to wean, a natural human diet can gradually begin (please see the HumanaNatura natural diet program for a definition of our natural diet).  The beauty of natural foods, for humans or any other mammal, is that they can be eaten essentially from the point of weaning.  Starting with mashed fruit and then graduating to mashed or shredded vegetables and ground, cooked eggs, meat and fish, simple natural eating can begin and increase as the child is weaned.  Once a child’s early teeth are in place and the child has mastered chewing, small pieces of fruit, vegetables, and meat and fish can be introduced, and breast feeding can be curtailed rapidly and then stop altogether.  Nut pastes may be introduced at weaning as well, but whole nuts must be avoided until the child is old and skilled enough to eat nuts with care and without risk of choking. Honey should not be given to young children because their immune systems are not developed enough for this food.

In planning a child’s natural diet, it is important to add that the consumption of milk is not recommended, other than the mother’s breast milk and then only until the point of weaning.  After that, no other milk is needed and use of animal milk and infant formula is not recommended on the HumanaNatura diet.  A diet rich in fruits, leafy vegetables, and nut pastes will provide the child with adequate vitamins and minerals for strong bones, and cooked eggs, meats and fish will provide the correct and high-quality natural proteins needed for a healthy growth throughout childhood. When the child is thirsty, which will be less frequent on a natural rather than a grain and legume-based diet, water is the best liquid to use, or two-thirds water and one-third fresh fruit juice.

The best rule for feeding children is to do so whenever and only when they are hungry, but not during the night after about three months of age.   Both child and mother need rest as much as food, after all, and all but newborns can go without food for an extended time if need be.  With a bit of training, most young children can and should pass the night without eating – and often sleep with much less fidgeting.  It is important to add that long before small infants can speak, they can be taught to use hand signals to indicate when they are hungry, and when they are simply uncomfortable or want to be held, reducing frustration for baby and uncertainty for parents trying to assess the child’s state and likelihood of hunger.

Natural Exercise

As their bodies strengthen and coordination improves, children become naturally and even astonishingly active on their own.  At an early age, the primary role of the parent is to ensure that this natural activity is safe, varied, and increasingly challenging.  Young children naturally need and ask for time outdoors, at first to observe their surroundings and later to engage actively in the natural world – walking and running, jumping and climbing, and engaging in group play.  This activity is of course how children develop their strength and coordination, learn about their personal abilities and limits, develop their cognitive and social skills, and prepare for life as adults.

Well before children can walk or crawl, it has been discovered that most can swim, though we lose this natural ability if we do not swim when very young (both facts have sent evolutionary scientists into frenzy to understand why).  If this is an option, closely-supervised swimming with a parent is a marvelous outlet for both physical and cognitive development before walking begins, and after too.  Once a child can stand, short indoor or patio walks usually can start within a month, followed by supervised neighborhood walks, and then escorted outdoor treks of increasing duration and intensity as the child ages and matures.  Family walking and hiking, and swimming, are all wonderful natural opportunities for mutual exploration, learning, connection, and growth – for healthy individual and family life.

For an active young child, calisthenics are not normally needed or recommended, because of their already diverse natural activity. But beginning at age four or five, calisthenics or equivalent physical activities can be introduced as a form of recreation and to promote added physical development.  Many children find calisthenics fun, especially when practiced with the adults in their lives, helping to set the stage for a lifelong orientation toward health and fitness. Long distance running is not recommended during childhood, especially before puberty, and should be considered a less healthy and natural alternative to walking, hiking, and swimming for children and adults.

Natural Living 

By far the broadest and most far-reaching natural health topic in the lives of adults is the active management of our overall lifestyle, our life when not eating or exercising, which HumanaNatura calls the work or practice of natural living.  Natural living includes optimizing the health of our physical and social environment, our goals and priorities, our perspective and attitudes, and our patterns of daily behavior.  All of these considerations apply to the natural lives of growing children too, if in initially abbreviated or then graduated forms. 

Beginning before age two, each child begins to be called upon to make choices, simple ones at first for sure, but then with increasing complexity on the way to early adulthood and beyond.  Success in this progressive and natural challenge of autonomous choice is of course essential to the health and well-being of the child and eventual adult, and must be carefully and deliberately fostered by parents and other caregivers as the child grows.

Early in life, we are all completely dependent on the adults in our life for our health and well-being, for both our safety and development.  Here, parents must ensure an optimally healthy environment: freedom from excessive stress, caring and nurturing relationships, good emotional and behavioral models to shape imprinting, adequate stimulation and rest, and tasks and goals of increasing complexity to focus the child’s attention and foster cognitive growth.  In early life, parents must act for and on behalf of the young infant, with the child’s health and development in mind, at all times.  Parents must create, manage, and actively balance the amount of structured and unstructured time to create a healthy family environment for the infant and themselves

As children age, responsibility for their life and health – their environment, perspective, priorities, and behavior – can and must increasingly be delegated to them to foster natural autonomy and eventual adult health.  This natural delegation of control to the child can often begin in small ways before the age of two, accelerate slowly and then significantly during mid and late childhood, and be largely complete before or during the independence-minded teen years.  A parent’s primary goal in this transfer of responsibility is twofold: 1) to ensure safety and freedom from excessive failure (but not all failure since this is an important source of learning and maturation), and 2) to make certain that, by late adolescence or early adulthood, the child is fully capable of living autonomously and interdependently, as a growing and self-developing young adult, even if this is no long necessary economically in modern and post-modern family life. 

Well before age eighteen, and even if vocational learning and maturation await, children should be able to attend to all major activities of daily adult living, set short and long-term goals, spend time alone without boredom and the many impulsive behaviors boredom can engender (in children and adults), make sound decisions and manage impulses when they do arise, optimize their behavior against their goals and in the circumstances and groups they find themselves in, and actively select their circumstances and build social groups for optimal health and growth.  In other words, by their mid-teen years, children should be ready to lead a healthy and happy life, autonomously and interdependently with others.  This is a gradual process that comes in small and incremental steps throughout childhood, inevitably with mistakes by and learnings for both child and parent, and with rites and major milestones too.  It is a goal that many parents today want for their children, but do not always actively foster.

In truth, the development of children into healthy, self-managing and socially integrated young adults normally occurs quite naturally, with caring and attentive parenting, but environment plays a large part in this process, shaping our identity and influencing our maturation.  Today, there are many environmental factors that can help or hinder a child’s natural development toward adulthood, which can be considered and managed in the graduated process outlined above.  This natural and conscious process of child-rearing promotes healthy autonomy and interdependence – initially by parents ensuring environmental quality and a healthy environment for the young child, and then increasingly by allowing and insisting that the growing child do this her or himself.  In this way, parents prepare the child for adult life in a world that contains both threats to and opportunities for natural health and higher life.

In our industrial world, just as in times before ours, many factors can negatively influence the process of natural childhood development and undermine our successful advancement to healthy adult life: excessive mass media exposure and other forms of electronic stimulation, poor peer quality and undesirable adult role models, incomplete training and guidance in essential life skills, limited or biased development of personal focus and goal-setting, either inadequate or excessive demands on and structure for the child, infrequent contact with and activity in wild nature, unnatural eating and inadequate exercise, and a lack of learning and social enterprises during childhood, to begin a list.  In natural child-rearing, children need to be exposed to negative influences, in supervised and age-appropriate ways, so they understand and can live healthfully as adults amidst them, even as a parent’s primary focus is their avoidance and nurturing and cultivating the child to natural and healthy life.

As mentioned before, particularly pervasive and health-endangering facets of modern childhood are conditions that lead either to boredom, the feeling that one has nothing meaningful to pursue, or to frustration, the feeling that one cannot pursue things that are meaningful.  Both feelings, or more rightly both conditions, open children and adolescents to stress and a broad range of impulsive and unhealthy behaviors.  They are signs and signals of unnatural development, of reduced health and well-being, and demand a parent’s urgent and compassionate attention. 

Another unhealthy circumstance of our times is the increasingly frequent condition where children feel overwhelmed with excessive commitments and structure, where they lack natural freedom and healthy reflective time, another important source of stress and impulsiveness and an important danger-signal for parents.  Children of all ages naturally need some structure and assistance in cultivating themselves and their aims, but increasingly should be doing this for themselves, with confidence and even surprising maturing, before or by their mid-teens.  And, at all ages, should feel neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed in their emerging and maturing self-management.

I hope and suspect I have given would-be and already active parents much to think about, as they consider the opportunity to use natural health techniques in the raising of their children.  Fortunately, and in case these many ideas feel slightly overwhelming at first, all of the approaches highlighted are well within the control and mastery of parents.  In addition, the art of raising children naturally can and should include the child as a true partner and resource in her or his own development, as well as other adults and children around us, making the task easier in practice than it may initially in summary.  Natural child-rearing is also always mastered gradually and day-by-day, in the many days that are our natural human childhood and parenthood. 

In many ways, the process of raising children naturally and optimally is quite simple.  It involves balance and focus in a few key areas, and we are all naturally endowed to do this, with just a bit of learning and patience, and a commitment to attentive nurturing.  We all naturally enjoy nurturing children, whether they are our own or not, and this suggests just how intuitive and natural child-rearing is, and how well equipped we all are to be healthy and caring parents. 

As adults, we all can make choices that create supportive, cooperative lives near nature for children and ourselves, lives based on nurturing the health and happiness of all the people we touch.  In living and participating in healthy families and community in this way, we naturally and enjoyably create conditions for the health, well-being, and growth of both children and their parents today.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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