The skin is the largest human organ and a person’s most important and primary connection to the world. Touch is the first sense to develop in utero. Being touched in a reassuring and loving manner releases endorphins, these feel-good hormones that are beneficial for our health. Putting our hands on one’s shoulder when they are unwell or massaging their back when they are in pain are ways of communicating love and are therapeutic actions.
Nurturing Touch and Baby Emotional Development
Having a nurturing approach to physical interactions with a baby means that most physical contacts are invested as ways to promote affection, security, and emotional regulation.
Nurturing touch promotes secure attachment between babies and their parents and forms the biological basis for lifelong resilience.
Examples of approaches that would provide nurturing touch would be skin-to-skin moments, breastfeeding, massage, carrying baby in arms (versus overuse of devices designed to hold a baby independently).
The first attachment relationships for an infant hold great power because they typically become the most significant model for all future relationships in their life. We know that neglect and abuse have a significant negative impact on the child’s developing brain, not only on their social skills or interpersonal relationships patterns.
A wealth of scientific evidence shows that the early years are the prime window to develop infants neural pathways and to build cognitive maps in their brains that will shape their thoughts, opinions and interpretations of the world. Hence the need for parents to be careful : feeling rushed, stressed or overstimulated also raise stress levels and impact these forming maps and pathways in their baby’s brain.
Babies’ emotional and stress regulation capacities start in their body, and they need to be activated and enhanced by parental care. Crying babies are a source of concern for many parents who feel anxious, helpless and frustrated in these situations. They are two reasons why babies cry : the first is to communicate a need or a discomfort (they are hungry, tired, cold or they need a cuddle). Babies can also use crying as a natural healing mechanism. They experience confusion as they attempt to understand the world, and they are easily frightened and overstimulated. In addition, they feel frustrated as they attempt to learn new skills and communicate. All of that results in emotional pain stored in their body, that they need to cry out. People of all ages benefit from a good cry. Babies need closeness and attention when they are crying, as it is a moment when they are processing their emotions, feelings, and new knowledge as well.
No baby should ever be left to cry alone ! Even though a parent may feel ineffective holding their crying baby, in reality they are providing them with nurturing touch. This is much appreciated emotional support, that they need while they are releasing stress in this manner. That is why there is a huge difference between leaving a baby to cry alone in a crib, and holding a crying baby lovingly while providing confort and reassurance. Holding babies in arms while they are crying is a way to send them the message that they are not alone. It builds their inner security and helps them to develop their coping mechanisms and self-soothing skills.
Baby Massage Benefits
Massaging a baby is not a technical matter, it is not about knowing the right strokes. It is about building a relationship. Baby falls in love with whoever is touching them in this loving way. Parents develop their sensitivity thanks to this medium, they become more attuned to their baby’s needs and cues. Baby massage enhances mindfulness. While parents are massaging their babies, they are fully focused on their reaction, their smile, their look, their cues of joy. It’s not a good idea to massage while texting, or calling someone : it would completely lose its purpose. Babies need their parents’ attention while being massaged, as they need to be held in arms and in mind, in order to process their emotions and experiences.
Oxytocin is an hormone made by the brain and released in the bloodstream during childbirth and breastfeeding. It is sometimes referred to as the « love hormone » because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It has a role in social behaviours like generosity and empathy, enhances emotional bonding and trust. Massage activates the release of this hormone in both the baby and the parent. That is why baby massage is advertised as a bonding activity !
Massage stimulates the immune, circulatory and digestive systems, amongst other things. It develops the sense of touch, participates in the construction of the baby’s own body image and promotes sensory integration. If the parent names the body part that they are massaging, it will develop the baby’s knowledge of their body as well. Tummy massage has been used by generations of mums to calm colic and constipation pain. Baby massage releases muscular tension as well. Strokes, or the “relaxing touch” (holding your baby’s limb between your hands while repeating « relax » in a soft voice, and giving positive feedback when it is done) give a sense of relief and are reenergising. The strokes that are usually taught in classes, come from both the Indian and Swedish massage traditions, as well as incorporating principles from yoga and reflexology. Lastly, baby massage promotes sleep by reducing stress hormones levels (cortisol and norepinephrine) and releasing anti stress hormones (oxytocin and serotonin).
Every baby craves to be touched, they need it to thrive!
Massage is one way a parent can use to nurture their relationship with their baby. But it is important to respect a baby’s rhythm and right to refuse a massage, either because they are sleeping, crying (meaning already overstimulated), or simply because they don’t feel like it at that moment.
Baby massage is a bonding and nurturing activity that should involve not just the mum but also fathers and siblings !
It is one-to-one quality time with baby, that does not require any more than the will to give undivided attention to him/her for a certain amount of time in order to connect, develop a relationship and a sense of relaxation in both participants. It is also a chance to discover your baby’s uniqueness !