AN AGE-OLD TRADITION
“Being touched and caressed,
Being massaged, is food for the infant.
Food as necessary as minerals,
Vitamins, and protein.”
— Dr. Frederick Leboyer
A young mother gently cradles her baby in her lap as the afternoon sun breaks through cracks in the wooden door. For the second time that day, she carefully removes the tiny cap and begins to unwrap the swaddling bands of soft white linen and wool.
Freed from his snug encasement, the baby kicks and waves his little arms, listening to the now-familiar swish-swish of the warm oil in his mother’s hands, and the comforting sound of her balmy lullaby. So begins his twice-daily massage.
The scene is in a Jewish shtetl, one of the small enclaves in Poland in the early nineteenth century, but we could be anywhere in the world, in any century, for it is a familiar tableau of motherhood in every culture throughout the ages.
From the Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic to the Ganda of East Africa, from South India to Northern Ireland, in Russia, China, Sweden and South America, in South Sea island huts and modern American homes, babies are lovingly massaged, caressed, and crooned to every day. Mothers all over the world know their babies need to be held, carried, rocked, and touched. The gentle art of infant massage has been part of baby caregiving traditions passed from parent to child for generations. Asked why, each culture would provide different answers. Most would simply say, “It is our custom.”
Many of the family customs of our ancestors, turned aside in the early twentieth century in the interest of “progress,” are returning to our lives as modern science rediscovers their importance and their contribution to our infants’ well-being and that of whole communities. Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated that in societies where infants are held, massaged, rocked, breastfed, and carried, adults are less aggressive and violent, more cooperative and compassionate. Our great-grandmothers would stand up and utter a great,”I told you so!” were they to observe our “new” discoveries in infant care.
Creating a Peaceful World Through Parenting
Mahatma Gandhi, at the Montessori Training College, London, October 28, 1931, had some wise words to share with parents that still make sense. He said, “If we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children. And if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have the struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.”
Everything starts somewhere. Every baby beams when there is peace in the home, and looks perplexed and cries when there is not. To an infant, conflict is a puzzle. Infants not only want everyone to get along, they expect it. They are born expecting peace. But, as the Natural Child Project says, “We know that each day, in far too many places, there will be conflict, fighting, killing, and even war. If we are all peace lovers in our infancy, what makes us so divisive in adulthood? What goes wrong? How can it be fixed?”
To reduce the potential for violence in general, it may be more constructive to look at the earliest links, not the most recent ones. While there are many factors that can lead to violence, the best prevention is always the earliest —the one that keeps the first domino from falling.
Several ways this can happen:
Encourage young men and women to consider carefully their readiness to love and nurture a child; push for high school classes which have this as their focus.
Offer local maternity classes and support groups that focus on the parent-child connection, such as La Leche League meetings and parent-baby support groups.
Give parents the support they need, so they can have time to fall in love with their baby — everything else can wait. Push for legislation that allows good maternity/paternity leave with no threat of suspension because of that absence.
Encourage parents to attend infant massage classes and massage their baby every day. Let them know that infant massage re-creates the crucial bonding with their baby over time, and impacts the baby in every way for life. A bedtime massage can help a baby to sleep more soundly, giving her more resilience and energy the following day. A massage in the afternoon, before stress builds and babies have the “five-o’clock fussies,” can prevent late afternoon-evening from becoming a chaos of crying baby, trying to make dinner, welcoming home a working parent, and fried nerves of the stay-at-home parent, which can lead to abuse including neglect, shaken-baby, and stress between partners.
Remind parents of the substantial benefits of breastfeeding with child-led weaning. (This emphasizes the importance of making bottle-feeding as much like breastfeeding as possible).
Educate everyone on the importance of responding to a baby’s cries quickly and lovingly.
Encourage parents to teach their babies sign language so they can communicate their needs and feeling before they have words.
Promote baby-wearing, especially skin-to-skin. Even a little bit of this every day can have a wonderful, positive impact on the baby’s physical needs (like daily massage, it helps with gastrointestinal functions, respiratory functions, and emotional/spiritual bonding). In many Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), this is called “Kangaroo Care,” and is encouraged by nursing staff. Often a special room is assigned for Kangaroo Care, where a parent can remove upper body clothing and hold their naked baby on their chest. Parents can push for this in their communities, among NICU hospital staff and their own pediatrician.
Recommend that parents avoid unnecessary baby gear, which can interfere with the parent-child bond. Once American Baby Magazine put on their cover a tiny infant in a carrier, in the middle of the page. In the rest of the picture (the entire cover), the baby is surrounded by all the devices, implements, furniture and gadgets that we buy as if they are necessary. It was a powerful picture, showing that we have forgotten the importance of an infant being cared-for in a natural way; that all the “stuff” we think we must have mostly gets between us and our infants. Encourage parents to allow their babies to gaze at the movement of leaves on trees, other children playing, flowers, the rhythmic bouncing of walking outside, the rhythmic rocking in a rocking chair (ideally, one that is outside).
Help parents learn about empathetic alternatives to punishment to foster cooperation based on love, not fear. Read an article about this at: http://www.cnvc.org . It includes “22 Alternatives to Punishment.”
Train family and marital counselors to emphasize the critical importance of treating children with dignity and respect.
Intervene on behalf of children whose needs and feelings are not being heard. These last two are addressed by daily infant massage; parents are given tools and educated about how to treat their infants with dignity and respect, how to understand their baby’s communication and respond to body-language cues.
Above all, remind parents to take their children’s feelings and needs
seriously and respectfully, from birth.
The Natural Child Project says, “Unfortunately, we often receive misguided advice to use approaches such as spanking, time-out, denial of privileges, and cry-it-out. While this advice may be well-meant, such strategies inevitably create anger and frustration in the child, which can build up over time and lead to aggressive behavior. They can also damage the child’s self-esteem and hinder their ability to connect with their parents or anyone else.”
As adults, we know that the more kindly we treat a friend the more cooperative and helpful that friend will be, because they will be motivated by love, not fear. Parents who relate to their children with patience and empathy model peaceful problem-solving skills that children automatically use throughout their lives.