The mothers of India have given the world one of the most important parenting tools known to humanity: infant massage. It is probably hard to imagine raising a baby without this gentle, everyday experience, but in some western cultures (particularly the U.S.) it is just being discovered!
In her book, Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents, American author, Vimala McClure, describes her visits to India in the early 1970s and witnessing mothers all over India giving their babies a daily massage.
She was fascinated by this beautiful ritual and soon learned that it was much more than just a sweet gift to soothe a baby, it was a deep spiritual, physical, and emotional connection that had tremendous benefits to the whole family.
In many modern cultures, parents provide very little touch to their children. Infants in the U.S. often spend a majority of their lives going from container to container (i.e., baby seats, infant carriers, car seats), rather than being picked up and held or receiving the nurturing touch necessary for healthy emotional and neurological development.
Babies are now experiencing plagiocephaly or ‘flat head syndrome’ because of spending more time on their backs in cribs, swings and car seats. In her book, Essential Touch, Frances Carlson describes her experience as a classroom teacher and her observations of the devastating consequences of lack of touch on students.
She found that when children’s needs for touch are not met, they will be at more risk for abuse because they are more vulnerable for unhealthy, negative touch, and more prone to engage in fighting and bullying, craving hurtful touch rather than no touch at all.
When you think about the five major senses of smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch have you ever thought about which of these senses are critical for a human being’s survival?
Touch is the only sense that a human being cannot live without. In our book, Attached at the Heart, we tell a story from Dr. Ashley Montagu’s classic book, Touching:
Dr. Fritz Talbot of Boston was one doctor who decided to try something different. He remembered a trip he made to Düsseldorf, Germany, before World War I, where he toured a children’s clinic. As he was shown about the wards, he noticed a large old woman who was carrying a very sick infant.
When he inquired who the woman was, the attending physician said, “Oh that is Old Anna. When we have done everything we can medically for a baby, and it is still not doing well, we turn it over to Old Anna, and she is always successful.”
So what was Old Anna’s secret? It was what we would call tender, loving care as she rocked and held these fragile babies. Dr. Talbot introduced this kind of care when he returned to Boston, and his methods spread.
In 1938, Bellevue Hospital in New York established the rule that every baby should be picked up and “mothered” on the paediatric wards; that year their death rate fell from 35 percent to less than 10 percent.
Science tells us that when our skin receptors are stimulated they release a pharmacy of beneficial hormones that help to regulate our baby’s gastrointestinal track, promoting good digestion and growth.
More research tells us that nurturing touch improves intellectual and motor development immediately from birth. It also helps regulate a baby’s temperature, heart rate, and sleep-wake patterns, especially when the baby is held skin-to-skin.
Oxytocin, the ‘mother love’ hormone that is so beneficial to the mother during childbirth and breastfeeding, is also released when the mother is stroking or massaging her baby.
Dr. Tiffany Field at the University of Florida, USA, has done extensive research on the importance of touch with preterm babies. Babies who were touched and given gentle strokes in the NICU gained weight faster and were released earlier from the hospital.
Many hospitals now practice ‘Kangaroo Care’ for their preterm babies, actually placing these babies on their mother’s chest between their breasts for significant amounts of time during the day. These babies gain weight faster, sleep better, and their heart rates and temperatures stabilize more quickly.
In our busy lives today, we see so many babies who rarely receive the type of nurturing touch that is critical to their development and survival. Using infant slings and carriers is one simple way that Attachment Parenting advocates have found to meet their child’s need for touch, while carrying on with their daily routines.
Taking a few minutes every day to give your baby a simple massage is another way to reconnect and enjoy each other’s company, attuning to each other and giving each other the precious gift of deepening your loving relationship.
- Attached at the Heart: 8 Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children by Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, 2009
- Essential Touch: Meeting the Needs of Young Children by Frances Carlson, 2006
- The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, 2003
- Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents by Vimala McClure, 2000
- The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact With Your Baby Leads To Happier, Healthier Development by Sharon Heller, PhD, 1997
- Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu, PhD, 1986
- The website of the International Association of Infant Massage
- Information on Kangaroo care for preterm infants
Copyright © Barbara Nicholson & Lysa Parker
Barbara Nicholson is co-founder and President of the Board of Directors of Attachment Parenting International. She has a Master of Education degree specializing in learning disabilities. She has been a breastfeeding and parent support group facilitator for over 27 years. She speaks to various groups and conferences and has given workshops about parenting as a prevention model for societal violence. She is the mother of four grown sons and lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee, US.
Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE, is co-founder and Director Emeritus of Attachment Parenting International. She has a Masters in Human Development and Family Studies and is a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) through the National Council on Family Relations. She is a speaker, writer, parent support group facilitator and parenting consultant in private practice. Throughout her career she has worked as a special education teacher with the multiply handicapped and those with learning difficulties. Lysa is the mother of two grown sons and a stepdaughter, and the grandmother of twin grandsons.
Photo credit demordian