It begins, as so much human life begins, with the low primordial moos of a woman in the final stage of labour. Which, if you happen to have produced such inconceivably long laments yourself (at which point I put my hand up. Twice), you will smile, grimace, laugh, scream, run away, start jabbering like a fool, or burst into tears. Such is the effect, on this mother anyway, of babies. Also, to an understandably much lesser extent, Babies (Netflix).
This six-part docu-series follows 15 families around the world during the first months of a baby’s life. Plus, there is lots of cutting-edge science seeking to answer the eternally unanswerable question of how babies become who they are, and what they do to us. Some of this is fascinating, some forehead-smackingly obvious to anyone who has experienced the deep privilege, joy, shock, isolation and boredom of parenting a baby from birth. Fundamentally, there is nothing as novel or revelatory here as watching an actual newborn. What you get is a series such as The Baby Has Landed or Child of Our Time given the Netflix Originals treatment: swish production values, a global outlook, a more diverse mix of families, lots of meaningful closeups of an infant’s big toe, and a lush Blue Planet-esque opening with a lovely fat baby suspended in water instead of a beluga.
The first episode, Love, is about bonding: those extraordinary early weeks saturated with milk, exhaustion and oxytocin. In London, we meet Rachel, Adam, Lily and Willow, who was the cause of all that mooing at the start. In Tel Aviv, Ruth Feldman, professor of developmental social neuroscience, is interested in what happens in our brains when we fall in love with our babies. She has discovered oxytocin levels increase in the first month not just in mothers but to an identical extent in fathers (or, as we call them in my two-mother family, second parents). “Fatherhood is as biologically deep as motherhood,” Feldman concludes, which is quite the conclusion. At this point my brain tried to cogitate more on the implications of such findings on paternity leave, whether we should be aiming for biological parity or increased awareness of difference … but then my baby fell over, I forgot where I was, and you know how it goes.
Spit-spot to Calgary, where Isaac and Josh have become parents to baby Eric, conceived through surrogacy. “Having Eric made our lives more stressful, but it’s a good stress,” says Isaac, which is a spot-on description of parenting and why we will never get a good night’s sleep again. The science lies in the opening of the amygdala, the place in the brain where stress and vigilance responses are located, and which is activated by the surge in oxytocin in the mother after birth. Once it is open, Feldman says casually, it stays that way. FOREVER. This gave me and my gaping amygdala an instant headache. For Feldman, it led to scanning the brains of 48 gay male couples who had their babies from birth. Turns out their amygdalas were open, too. Incredible.
Essentially, babies are tiny superpowers who prise open amazing stuff in us, if only we would pay attention. (Instead of, possibly, spending our precious time watching programmes about them.) They also, as the second episode examines, stimulate the production of breast milk. Yes, Babies wades knee-deep into the breastfeeding wars by marvelling at the “bespoke” properties of each mother’s milk, which I found refreshing in an age when it has become controversial to say breast milk is amazing. It also features a mother breastfeeding after a caesarean section, which I did with my firstborn but have never before seen on telly.
Ultimately, Babies is a lovely inclusive celebration of humans in their most compact, adorable form that slightly irritated me. While it is exciting that babies learn and know more from a very early age than we ever thought possible, it is also stressful. And it never seems to lead to a greater valuing of parenting, which is mostly done by women. This is why any programme about baby development, however well-meaning, might as well be subtitled: All the Ways in Which You Should Feel Anxious and Guilty as a Parent … and Probably a Woman. The mystery of existence can feel an awful lot to land on the dimpled shoulders of babies, too, who are mostly busy blowing milk bubbles. Ultimately, just as in real life, the best bits in Babies are not the latest discoveries about gut microbiome or the startling changes in hippocampi in response to parenting styles. They are the babies.