How many times has a well-meaning friend or family member told you that ‘you’ll make a rod for your own back’ or warned you that if you help your baby go to sleep, she’ll never learn to sleep by herself? Probably many times! In fact it appears to be conventional wisdom that our babies can be taught bad habits, so to contradict this can often appear radical. We are often advised to reprimand or withhold affection from babies when they exhibit frustrating behaviours, such as throwing food from their highchair or when they cry out in the night for a cuddle. The message popular media would have us believe is that babies will manipulate their parents until we show them that we are in charge.
And yet, scientific evidence contradicts this advice completely. The part of our brain that comprehends ‘naughty’ and ‘good’ is developed well after birth, and is still developing through toddlerhood. As Sue Gerhardt writes in her fantastic book ‘Why Love Matters’, babies are simply not capable of this degree of impulse control. Babies have basic needs that must be met in order for them to thrive. Consider how much babies relax when they held by their parents. We know that their heart rate and temperature will be regulated by the comforting parent and that feel-good hormones, opioids and oxytocin, are released in their brains. This results in tension being dispersed and the baby calmed. Babies need help managing the stresses that life throws them.
In infant massage classes we teach parents to talk to their babies, to make close eye contact with them and to observe their cues. We always suggest asking permission before starting massage. This teaches babies that their feelings and needs are respected. When parents use nurturing touch with their babies, they are soothing their babies and communicating love in a powerful, physical way. And often, when a baby is soothed so is the parent. As Vimala McClure, the founder of the IAIM puts it: “the bonds of trust and love, the lessons of compassion, warmth, openness, and respect that are inherent in the massage routine will be carried by your child into adulthood”.
As babies grow, their brains will forge connections and they will start to make sense of the world around them. By showing our babies that they will be physically comforted when they are distressed we are helping them grow up feeling calm, secure, respected and loved.