Unlike the clinging monkey, the human infant has no physical means of initiating contact with his mother and thus getting his needs fulfilled. His life depends upon the strength of his parents’ emotional attachment to him. Where there is early and extended mother-baby contact, studies show impressively positive results. Mothers who bonded with their babies in the first hours and days of life later showed greater closeness to their own babies, exhibited much more soothing behavior, maintained more eye contact, and touched their babies more often. Early contact mothers were more successful in breastfeeding and spent more time looking at their infants during feeding, and their babies’ weight gain was greater. At age three, these children had significantly higher IQ scores on the Stanford-Binet test than children who had been separated from their mothers.
I began massaging my baby shortly after he was born. I started with the traditional massage I had learned in India, and due to my research and my observations, I gradually added and subtracted elements that were backed up by professional research and because of my yoga teaching, my knowledge of the lymph system and the importance of including massage and movements to stimulate it. Lymph carries toxins through its own system and helps push the toxins out through the gastrointestinal system. It has no innate way to circulate on its own — movement of some kind helps circulate the lymph. The circulation of lymph is one of the foundations of yoga postures.
After my first baby was born, I continued studying bonding and its elements, strapping him to my chest (in a new product, invented by an acquaintance of mind, called a “Snugli”) and heading off to the medical library several times a week. By that time I massaged my baby daily and, as much as possible, carried him in a front pack on my chest.
A Massage Routine that Could Be Taught
After massaging my baby every day for three months and continuing my research, I developed a massage routine that could be taught. My baby was “colicky” and so I used massage and yoga postures to help mature his gastrointestinal system. The routine I developed was always successful in reducing, then eliminating, the cries of colic. The massage helped move fecal matter and gas through the intestines and down through the colon, easily eliminated by the baby’s natural system. Using the strokes and movements I developed, a baby’s colic is relieved within two weeks. My Colic Relief Routine was included in the curriculum I was developing.
There are two studies whose results are that “pleasant touch” is good for babies. They say that a gentle touch or caress, deemed “pleasant touch,” stimulates a baby’s senses and induces a response indicative of parent-infant bonding. The data says that new research into the matter now finds that these interactions are not only important for bonding, but that they also build on the child’s social and physiological development.
One article says “Our results provide physiological and behavioral evidence that sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in development and therefore plays an important role in regulating human social interactions.” The findings are important because they show that the implicit meaning of pleasant touch — to stimulate bonding — develops as early as infancy. In turn, these social interactions carry on into adulthood, as many adults lightly caress, or pet, their partner to express love and affection.
An article in Scientific American reported that children lacking this kind of interaction (“pleasant touch”) — often those who end up in foster care or orphanages — tend to have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol as they grow older. High levels of cortisol are present in depression and anxiety disorders. “This lack of affection,” say the researchers, “can result in a child who develops emotional, behavioral, and social problems later in life.”
Cognitive neuroscientist Merle Fairhurst and colleagues of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, knew that previous studies with adults show that a specific type of touch receptor is activated in response to a particular stroking velocity, leading to the sensation of “pleasant” touch. They hypothesized that this type of response emerges as early as infancy.
Strokes of Medium Velocity Work Best
Babies show unique physiological and behavioral responses to pleasant touch, which helps to cement the bonds between parent and child. For this study, Fairhurst and colleagues had infants sit in their parents’ laps while the experimenter stroked the back of the infant’s arm with a paintbrush. The results showed that the babies’ heart rate slowed in response to the brushstrokes when the strokes were of medium velocity; in other words, the touch of the medium-velocity brush helped to decrease their physiological arousal. The infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. The more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant's heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.
The most engaging response came with the medium-velocity strokes, which not only lowered the babies’ heart rate, but also caused them to become more curious about the brush as it stroked them. Further strengthening the relationship between pleasant touch and parent-child bonding, the researchers found that parents whose self-reported sensitivity to touch was higher were more likely to have children who responded more to the pleasant touch of the paintbrush.
In my experience, most parents err on the side of too light a stroke, and often need to be encouraged to be a little more firm in their massage. When they know that their baby responds better to a firmer stroke, they gain confidence. I often asked them to think of a cat licking her kittens; the “stroke” is just right; the kittens rely on the mother’s strength to feel grounded and cared-for and if mom doesn’t lick her kittens the right way for the right amount of time, their internal systems decline and they die.
I encourage parents to go slow, breathe deeply, and establish a rhythm when massaging their infants. Many parents find that the time they spend massaging their babies is a kind of sacred ritual, a kind of mindful prayer or meditation, from which both parent and baby benefit tremendously. Bonds are strengthened, the baby benefits physically with massage helping develop whole-body integration, brain and nervous system are enhanced, circulatory, respiratory, and gastro-intestinal systems are stimulated and grow. Infant massage is truly a “fourth trimester” priority, and most parents continue a massage routine as their babies grow.
Written by Vimala McClure