The important elements that help form the bond between parent and infant include eye contact, skin contact, scent — both baby’s unique scent and that of the mother. Also, vocalization, the baby’s responses to the parent, the activation of maternal and paternal hormones by contact with the baby, temperature regulation, and the immunizing bacteria and antibodies transferred to the baby by close contact with the parents.
While all of these elements come into play during the massage routine, the vital elements which strengthen bonds are eye contact, skin contact, vocalization, scent, and communication — the baby’s responses to the parent as well as the “dance” of learning intimately about one another.
Eye contact is one of the most powerful communications we have. Between parent and infant, it is a vital connecting link. Parents are compelled to get into a face-to-face position with their newborns and to gaze into their eyes. New parents croon to their babies, “Come on, now — open your eyes. Are you going to look at me?” Delighted exclamations follow when the infant makes eye contact. Parents report that they first feel very close to their babies when eye contact is made. The baby’s visual system is biologically proved to search out the contrasts in the bull’s-eye shapes of the parent’s eyes and nipples. Maternal hormones darken the areola during pregnancy to help attract the baby’s gaze. Experts say that eye contact is a powerful cue to the infant’s physiological system, the message received by the brain allows it to shut down the production of stress hormones initiated during childbirth. During a massage, the infant is positioned face to face with the parent, and the quality of interaction provides a lot of positive feedback, via eye contact, for parent and baby, continually reinforcing the message that it is “okay to relax now.”
Mothers seem to instinctively stroke their babies after birth, bringing myelination to the nerves and awakening the senses. Touch is a powerful element in human bonding. People in love, children forming friendships, even people who have acquired a new pet will spend extra time in close contact until the bond is secure. Animals raised without touch grow up to be antisocial and aggressive, and they tend to abuse and neglect their own young. Neurologist Richard Restak, author of The Infant Mind, comments on the importance of touch:
“The infant turns toward the mother. How will she respond? Will she touch him? Will she turn away? How simple the situation, how seemingly devoid of content and importance. But we are deceived by the simplicity of the exchange which takes place within seconds but endures for decades. The mother turns toward her infant and touches him. Neither party speaks. Who could ever have guessed that simply touching another human being could be so important.”
A third element in the dance of bonding is vocalization. From the moment she first responded to sound at around seven months gestation, your infant has been listening to your voice. Her body moves in rhythm with your speech patterns, and the high-pitched tone you use when talking to her is particularly sweet to her ears. During her massage, you might sing a song or tell a story. She will come to associate certain sounds with the massage. Repeat her name and use the word relax to gently teach her how to release tension. This I call Touch Relaxation, and I will write about it later.
Infant massage helps enhance the bond begun at birth. A baby learns to enjoy the wonderful comfort and security of loving and being loved. He acquires knowledge about his own body as his parent shows him how to relax a tense arm or leg, or helps him to release painful gas. His parent looks into his eyes, sings, talks soothingly, and gently strokes his skin. Thus, each day, the dance of bonding begins all over again.
“I feel much closer to my baby and more in tune with her body,” says Debbie, mother of three-month-old Kelly. “Knowing that she is growing so fast, it is precious to be able to keep in touch with her little body and experience her growth every day. I think she feels closer to me also, and there is a real trust developing because of our daily massage. I want to treasure her infancy with all its joys and problems. Massage is a wonderful way for me to do that. The benefits to my baby — physically and emotionally — are extra gifts.”
Getting to Know Each Other
Regular massage provides a time for a parent to become intimately acquainted with the baby’s body language, her rhythms of communication, her thresholds for stimulation, and how her body looks and feels when tense or at ease.
Bonding research also points out that parents feel closer to their infants if they can evoke a positive response from a specific series of actions. Massage, which combines intimacy, communication, play, and caregiving, can greatly enhance a parent’s feeling of competence Setting aside a time for touching and nurturing through massage, a parent sends her baby a very special message that says, “I love you and want t communicate with you, and you alone.” From all my work, I can say that most babies do indeed get the message! My own children, grown adults now, continue to benefit from the daily massage routines we had when they were babies. They are affectionate, compassionate, well-rounded human beings. Our closeness has remained throughout their growing years, even the teens and early twenties, when they had to break away to create their own identities and their own paths in life. Though we have had our share of communication breakdowns, we always come back to each other with love — mending, reattaching, and becoming more close and understanding of one another. Our commitment to our family bonds is unbreakable, and I can say unequivocally that I attribute this closeness, our commitment to each other, to our early experiences in building strong attachments through loving, responsive massage.
Given the appropriate tools and encouragement, a parent and baby can certainly compensate if their bonding has been postponed by separation. If you were not able to establish intimate, affectionate bonds with your baby early on, don’t despair. The beauty of the human species is that we have a marvelous ability to overcome set-backs and learn new patterns. If you are aware of the importance of these bonds, you can find ways to consciously assist nature.
An infant who avoids eye contact, who is stiff and doesn’t mold to your body, may need some extra attention and help to begin to trust and form the attachments he needs for healthy development. A daily massage can begin to recreate the elements of bonding that help you get in sync with one another. You may have to start with very little — perhaps only five minutes — and gradually increase as he begins to accept both your stroking and eye contact. Spending a little extra time carrying him, sleeping with him, taking baths with him, and playing with him when he is active and alert can also help. Whatever activities involve touching, talking, eye contact, and affection are the activities you can focus on. But go slowly. Some parents, in their anxiety at having missed the so-called early “bonding window,” overcompensate by overstimulating and stressing their baby with too much, too fast. Allow the baby to lead, giving your attention, affection, eye contact, cuddling, carrying, and soothing in ways he can accept.
Some parents find this re-creation of bonding difficult because of an overload of stress or depression caused by separation from their infant. If you feel stressed or depressed, get help now. Counseling can help a great deal; giving voice to pain is an essential means to healing. A counselor or psychotherapist can also help you find ways to deal with stress that you may not have thought about. For your baby’s sake, for a long-term healthy relationship between the two of you, outside help can be invaluable.
© 2015 Vimala McClure