Why you can’t ‘spoil’ your baby

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. 

Why baby massage is not just for mums.

Much is written about the benefits of baby massage for mothers and babies. Calmer babies, more sleep and improved bonding. Baby massage has even been proven to impact maternal mental health with mothers who massage their babies finding that symptoms of postnatal depression were alleviated.

This is all fantastic, however you would be forgiven for asking, what about dads? Do the benefits of baby massage also extend to fathers? Or is this purely about improving the maternal-infant bond?

We know that fathers frequently worry that they will lose out, that their bond with their baby will be impacted as women appear to have more opportunities to care for, feed and nurture their babies. It is vital that fathers know that their bond with their baby can grow and be nurtured. We often tell parents that bonding is not an event, but a process which can be influenced in a number of ways; from playing and singing, to basic babycare such as bathing, nappy changing and soothing. Essentially any activity that encourages eye contact, being respectful of baby’s cues and which provides an opportunity for positive interaction will enhance the bonding process.

With all this in mind, we were over the moon to read research which corroborated our theory that fathers also benefit hugely from using nurturing touch with their baby. The research study showed that fathers who attended baby massage classes had a significant reduction in stress levels than those who didn’t.  The research also showed that participating fathers felt more competent, found it easier to accept their role as father, and were of greater support to their partners. In addition, feelings of isolation and depression were reduced.

The authors of the study noted that baby massage classes gave dads an opportunity to share their fathering experiences. And in our fast-paced world, where time is short, commutes are long and work pressures high, it strikes us that creating this special time, learning skills that will improve the bonding process, reduce stress levels and allow fathers to talk about parenting, is more important than ever.