Nearly every new parent hears the admonition, “Don’t spoil the baby!”
at one time or another in the early months of parenting.
Research can help us understand why traditional practices are so important. Knowing why, we are less quick to cast adrift customs that can deeply enrich our lives. Our concern about raising “spoiled” children comes from an earlier time when behaviorists, after discovering behavioral conditioning, though that we could condition our babies to behave like little adults by ignoring their cries and not offering “too much” affection.
That approach has become popular again. (Fads swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another, and parenting advice of course is not immune to this phenomenon.) In the late 1990s, and again recently, popular baby care programs advised parents to put babies on rigid schedules, allow them to “cry it out” alone, and punish them for behavior that was not convenient for parents. The leaders of these movements also manage to convince parents that they damaged their infant’s metabolism by breastfeeding on demand (all research to the contrary) and created spoiled, selfish children if parents respond to their needs and comfort them when they cry. Parents are admonished never to allow their infants to sleep with them, for they can easily kill them. These ideas represent the extreme; a more practical and research-verified approach is that:
- In order to become well-adjusted, kind, empathic adults, babies require a lot of attention, affection, and response to their needs;
- Breastfeeding on demand, breastmilk in a bottle, and bottle-feeding as close to breastfeeding as possible are essential to a baby’s physical, mental and emotional health as well as continual bonding with parents;
- Co-sleeping can easily be made completely safe if parents learn appropriate ways to make it happen.
Proof abounds that babies who are neglected and punished suffer bonding breaks and, without intervention, often grow up to be troubled if not antisocial or sociopathic individuals. In my more than thirty years of working with parents to bond more deeply with their infants, respect them, learn their nonverbal “language,” and respond to them with love, I have received countless letters from parents saying infant massage changed their entire life as a family, and their children turned out to be lively, creative, inquisitive, secure, intelligent, social, loving, humanitarian human beings. I had this experience with my own two kids, now amazing adults; my own “laboratory” proved to me that my research and ideas are correct.
Authoritarian advisers neglect to mention that parents all over the world have naturally responded with love to their babies, breastfed on demand, slept in “family beds,” and carried infants in various types of slings — for millennia — and that if you read the biographies of terrorists, serial killers, and cruel dictators, you will invariably find neglected or authoritarian childhoods.
The Lack of Infant Eye Contact Predicts Later Antisocial Behavior
The lack of sensitive parenting early on predicts the development of callous, unemotional traits later on. New research suggests that early parents’ lack of eye contact with their infants can indicate a tendency toward antisocial behavior.
The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that reduced attention to the human face soon after birth may increase the likelihood of being less responsive to others’ distress later. Callous, unemotional traits have been hypothesized to be precursors of antisocial behavior found in psychopathic adults. These traits include problems recognizing the emotions of others, impairment in responding to the distress of others, and impaired guilt or empathy. Researchers say that these traits are linked to decreased attention to the face, especially the eyes, during infancy.
Eye contact with caregivers contributes critically to infant bonding and the development of the “social brain.”
Principal investigator Jonathan Hill, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, UK noted, “A lot of research shows that we read others’ emotions in their eyes,” said Dr Hill. “It is likely that we learn about others’ emotions early in life through eye contact and that this contributes to later responsiveness to the emotions of others.”
“This is an exciting first step in understanding the potential utility of infant eye gaze measures in the development of callous-unemotional traits in children,” agreed Kent A. Kiehl, PhD, professor of psychology at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author of The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience.
Early eye contact is a major factor in the bonding process, and plays a major role in successful infant massage. In our classes we emphasize the importance of eye contact, allowing parents to continue and/or begin the bonding process. I have always thought that this, plus skin-to-skin contact and vocalization continue the bonding process for many months, and even years. Thus, teaching parents of premature babies and others who for one reason or another were not able to bond in the first days after birth, is crucial. When I was teaching, 37 years ago, I tried to get parents into my classes as soon as possible after their babies were born. Eventually, I was able to go into the NICU and teach parents touch and holding methods, and finally, an abbreviated massage.
Infant massage is an ancient art that connects you deeply with the person who is your baby, and it helps you to understand your baby’s particular nonverbal cues and respond with love and respectful listening. It empowers you as a parent, for it gives you the means by which you become an expert on your own child and therefore can respond according to your baby’s unique needs. Rather than growing up selfish and demanding (though all kids go through such stages), a child whose voice is heard, whose heart is full, and who is enveloped in love overflows with that love and naturally, unselfconsciously gives of himself to others. He learns what healthy, respectful touch is by being touched that way. She learns self-discipline by watching her parents and imitating them. He has little to rebel against because there is no festering resentment of parents’ authoritarian or autocratic, unpredictable rules and punishments. The deep emotional bonds formed in infancy lay a foundation for a lifetime of trust, courage, dependability, faith, and love.
Infant massage is not just for parents who embrace a certain lifestyle. Whether your baby sleeps with you or in his own room, is breast-or-bottle-fed, is weaned early or late — all these decisions are up to you. Massaging your baby regularly simply communicates love, releases tension, and helps you better understand your baby’s needs. The fact that it is fun is a wonderful added benefit.
After more than sixty years of intensive research, it has become obvious that, as with fruit, neglect rather than attention spoils a child. “I’d gotten so much pressure about spoiling the baby, even before she was born,” says Judith, mother of three-year-old Kelsey. “But I felt differently inside. The information about the benefits of infant massage gave me permission to be the kind of mother I want to be and the research to back me up when I am contradicted.” When we know why our caress is so important to our babies, we are more likely to follow our intuition, to relax, and to give way to our natural inclinations.
Both for babies and parents, the benefits of infant massage are more far-reaching than they may at first seem.
For an infant, massage is much more than a luxurious, sensual experience or a type of physical therapy.
It is a tool for maintaining a child’s health and well-being on many levels. It helps parents feel secure in their ability to do something positive for — and get a positive response from —
this squealing bit of newborn humanity suddenly and urgently put in their care.