Infant Massage, Bonding, Baby-Wearing and Attachment – Part Two

The Fourth Trimester

During my time of research in 1975-1976, I continued my trips to the medical library, studying everything I could find regarding the effects of touch between parents and infants. I read through anatomy books and edited some of my massage routine, working with the babies’ internal organs. For example, the tummy strokes follow the intestinal tract and colon, which helps strengthen these organs and they begin to do their work earlier than they might have; I discovered that many researchers and physicians called the first few months of life the “fourth trimester.” Newborns are helpless; they cannot get up and walk like many animals. We are like kangaroos in this way; our babies need a few months more with the soothing touch of a parent’s massage, skin-to-skin contact, and carrying. Their gastrointestinal systems are not yet mature, and many infants experience “colic,” or painful gas and digestion. The elements of massage that help babies eliminate fecal matter and gas are the sweeping of palms down from rib cage to pelvis, and the clockwise strokes over the stomach that move trapped matter down and out.

Parent-Infant Bonding – A New Concept in 1976

In 1976, Dr.s Kennel and Klaus published their groundbreaking research on bonding. Their work inspired me so much, along with what I read in Montague’s research, I decided to massage my baby every day from the beginning. It was just the right timing — in our culture there was a kind of explosion of interest in, and acceptance of the importance of the elements of bonding and good birth practices. In September of 1976, I gave birth to my first child. I began massaging him, starting with the massage I had learned in India and gradually adding and revising strokes and the order of the strokes, and writing information that would become handouts in my classes later on. I took the notes that would be the foundation of my book, Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents

What is Bonding?

Bonding is a basic phenomenon that occurs throughout the universe. In terms of physics, it is established within the energy field from which particles arise. Two particles of energy brought into proximity spin and polarize identically, even when separated. Two living cells of a human heart brought into proximity begin to beat together. Throughout the animal kingdom and in human life as well, affectionate and tactile bonds between mother and young ensure healthy interaction and development for time to come. Proximity between parent and infant, via sensory experiences and loving interactions, brings them into an important synchrony with each other.


Animal researchers discovered imprinting long ago, when ethologist Konrad Lorenz showed that ducklings were biologically programmed to follow and bond with the first moving object they saw. Meanwhile, Harry Harlow and his associates studied monkeys and goats and found critical bonding times and elements that were important not only for the infant’s physical survival but for what we might call emotional health as well. Monkeys would abuse their infants if their own bonds as infants were disturbed.

In animals, the crucial period for bonding is usually a matter of minutes or hours after birth. The mother bonds with her infant through licking and touching, a type of massage, which in turn helps the infant to adjust physically to life outside the womb. If mother and infant are separated during this time and are subsequently reunited, the mother will often reject or neglect her young. As a result, the newborn may die for lack of the mother’s stimulation, even if fed by other means.  

The Elements of the Bonding Process

I was determined to include as many of the elements of bonding in our massage as possible: eye-to-eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, singing or humming to my baby, allowing natural odors, adding movements to maintain flexibility. The closeness of mother and baby allows the baby to smell the mother; a newborn baby can distinguish the smell of his or her mother from that of another mother. Parents can also recognize their baby from smell alone. Because of this important aspect of bonding, I decided to emphasize the use of unscented oil.

Resilience, as it relates to massage, is an indication of the quality of the bonding/attachment the baby develops with the parent or caregiver. It is through the elements of bonding that babies learn to be resilient, to bounce back from intense experiences.


The Difference Between Bonding and Attachment

In studies paralleling animal research, doctors John Kennell and Marshall Klaus, among others, have revealed that there is also a sensitive period for bonding in humans. The critical period seems less rigidly defined and may continue for months, even years, after childbirth. Another word often used in connection with bonding is attachment. While bonding is specific to birth and our connection with the animal kingdom, attachment happens over time and can occur between any two beings. Frank Bolton, in his book When Bonding Fails describes bonding as a one-directional process that begins in the biological mother during pregnancy and continues through birth and the first days of her baby’s life. Conversely, attachment is an interaction between parents and children, biological or not, that develops during the first year they are together and is reinforced throughout life. He describes it as the feeling that the other is “irreplaceable.”

Often these two terms are interchangeable, because in humans the bonding period is so loosely defined as to merge into the attachment process. Kennel and Klaus define bonding as “a unique relationship between two people that is specific and endures through time.” That definition could also apply to the word attachment.

Kennel and Klaus cited cuddling, kissing, and prolonged gazing as indicators of a developing bond. Dramatic evidence in their studies and others correlates the lack of early bonding and attachment with later abuse, neglect, and failure to thrive. Mothers who are separated from their babies during the newborn period are often more hesitant to learn and unskilled in basic mothering tasks. Even very short separations sometimes adversely affect the relationship between mothers and infants.

Lack of Bond Affects Babies in U.S.

Shockingly, new studies confirm that four out of ten babies born in the U.S. do not form a strong bond with either parent. In the early 70s, there was an upsurge of interest in birth and bonding, with parents choosing home births, rooming-in at hospital births, and learning infant massage and other things that brought parents and infants together. But unfortunately, that progress has decreased as time went on, in spite of the upsurge of programs like infant massage.

According to a study at Princeton University, 40 percent of infants in the U.S. live in fear or distrust of their parents, and that translates into aggressiveness, defiance and hyperactivity as they grow into adults. Of that number, 25 percent don’t bond with their parents because the parents aren’t responding to their needs. A tragic 14 percent find their parents so distressing that they avoid them whenever possible.

Sociologist Sophie Moullin of Princeton, lead author of the study, along with coauthors from Columbia University, analyzed more than 100 research projects, including data collected by a U.S. longitudinal study of 14,000 children born in 2001, to reach their conclusions. Yet critical, bonding, the researchers contend, is amazingly simple to achieve. The study notes,“When a parent responds to a child in a warm, sensitive and responsive way – picking up the child when he cries, and holding and reassuring him – the child feels secure that they can meet their needs.” 

Four Out of Ten Babies Do Not Form a Strong Bond

Incredibly, four out of ten infants born in the U.S. do not form a strong bond with either parent and, according to the authors of an article on the subject, “they will pay for that the rest of their lives.” Other research shows that simply touching, or caressing a newborn is critical to the infant’s sense of security. Infant massage, therefore, becomes an incredibly important art for parents to learn.

Usually it is the mother who is the central focus of studies like these, probably because the mother is often the main caregiver, especially in infancy. But a study at the University of Iowa two years ago concluded that “being attached to dad is just as helpful and being close to mom.” A similar study in 2012 from the Imperial College London found that fathers were especially important in helping the infant avoid behavioral problems later in life. If the father is remote or distracted, the child is more likely to be aggressive.

© 2014 Vimala McClure

One thought on “Infant Massage, Bonding, Baby-Wearing and Attachment – Part Two

  1. Pingback: Infant Massage, Bonding, Baby-Wearing and Attachment – Part Two | Infants, Babies, the Power of Touch

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