In an interview for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung , Karl Heinrich Brisch, chief of psychosomatic medicine at Children ‘s Hospital of the University of Munich, explained that babies who leave mourn “quickly learn to activate an emergency program in its brain, similar to the reflex action of the tanatosis observed in some animals who see their lives threatened, and that is to simulate death. “ This affects brain development, so children do not learn to adapt to stress.
With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.
Pediatrician William Sears has claimed that, “babies who are ’trained’ not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant or ‘good’ babies. Yet, these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs.”
Once on a television news spot, I was asked to demonstrate infant massage and talk about its benefits. As we hurried to the newsroom, the host said, “I hear you have a way to stop a baby’s screams in one second flat with massage. I hope you can show us that today!”
The baby, a sweet four-month-old with whom I’d had a lovely conversation in the “green room,” took one look at the newscaster and began to cry inconsolably. I did not demonstrate massage because I felt it would betray her feelings to use it as a trick to quiet her (even if it could have, which I doubt). The host concluded that the infant massage gimmick did not work. She was right. As a gimmick, it does not. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I was confronted with this “quick fix” mentality. Many people still think that babies should be seen and not heard.
Why do babies cry so much? Why does it bother adults so much? Why are people so confused about how to respond to a crying infant? As babies, we had few ways beyond crying to express negative feelings and release pent-up stress. Growing up, we learned how to deal with anger, fear, pain and excess energy in many ways; facial expressions, body language, and speech patterns now help us to convey how we feel. When the stresses of living pile up, we can go for a walk, take a vacation, or talk to a friend. Even when we are healthy, we cry from time to time; but we rarely cry in front of others.
We have learned that crying is antisocial and a sign of weakness. This was probably one of our earliest lessons. The idea of “spoiling” came into vogue in the early part of this century. People began to think that they should let babies “cry it out” alone. The rationale was that babies used crying to manipulate parents into gratifying babies’ desires, and that this was an unattractive character trait. Responding to it could only cultivate spoiled, boorish children leading their parents around by the nose. In order to teach babies that crying was unacceptable behavior and to train them for independence early on, they were left alone to cry until they grew hoarse and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
In the 1970s, a movement away from these earlier infant-rearing practices gained momentum. Many more women began breastfeeding, the front and back packs were invented, and even baby experts like Dr. T. Berry Brazelton recanted earlier advice not to take baby into parents’ bed. We finally realized that, like fruit, the only way to spoil a baby is through neglect. Other cultures influenced this change; global communication had become sophisticated enough for us to begin looking more closely at cultures on the other side of the world which had not yet been impaired by so-called modern thinking.
Unfortunately, we had. Mothers who previously might have left baby alone to cry while they felt guilty and tearful in the other room now jumped at baby’s smallest peep. But something remained. Getting the baby to stop crying, or not allowing the baby to cry at all, was still our obsession. There are times when we need to cry. It is a release, and crying in the loving arms of another is often much more so. I believe that babies’ feelings are as deep as ours, that their fears, their sorrows, and their frustrations are not less. From observing hundreds of babies in massage classes and in other cultures, I know that sometimes crying can be a relief for them, and that often after a good cry they are happier, their digestion improves, and they sleep more deeply. This “good cry,” however, is in a loving, supportive atmosphere, where the baby is neither ignored nor hushed. The parent recognizes a cry of hunger or physical pain, or a need for cuddling, and responds appropriately to it.
Many of us brought up in the age of “don’t spoil the baby” have mixed feelings about crying. We get anxious, tense up, want the crying to stop right away. It triggers fear and perhaps a reminder of the anguish (and anger) we may have felt, crying alone in a crib with no response. It can also engender guilt — am I a bad mother if my baby cries?
Our culture reinforces these feelings. Many people are extremely agitated by any noise a baby makes and assail its parent with dour looks at the slightest sound. The embarrassed parent often responds by punishing the baby with loud hisses, apologizing for the baby, and fleeing for the safety of home. Researchers have discovered that we have a built-in response to an infant’s cries. For example, in several experiments, one-day-old infants became distressed upon hearing another infant’s cries, but not upon hearing a synthesized, fake cry or the cry of an older child.
This suggests that the “distress response” is innate.1 How we act upon this distress, however, is determined by cultural factors. Western culture, as it has developed over the last hundreds of years, has systematically reduced our sensitivity to infants’ cues and placed an unnatural distance between parents and babies and between family and community members.2 This split between “nature” and “nurture” has created a vicious cycle of crying babies, sleepless nights, and sometimes, abuse.
Two types of infant rearing can be found in the animal kingdom: the caching,who leave their young for long periods while the mother gathers food, and the carrying species, who keep their young in continuous contact and closely space feedings. Behaviors which characterize the caching species are not found in humans. The babies must remain silent for long periods of time while the mother is absent, so as not to attract predators. They do not urinate or defecate unless stimulated by the mother, for the scent would attract predators in her absence. In addition, the young have internal mechanisms that control their body temperature. The mother’s milk is extremely high in protein and fat content due to the length of time between feedings, and the infants suckle at a very fast rate. Humans are in every way the opposite — much closer to the continuous-feeding, carrying mammals. Human milk, in fact, is identical in protein and fat content to that of the anthropoid apes, a carrying species. Human babies suckle slowly, and they cry when distressed or out of contact with the parent.3
Konner’s, Brazelton’s, and Mead’s observations and studies of several non-industrialized cultures showed virtually continuous contact between mother and baby. Cultural patterns characterized by close mother-infant contact and prolonged breastfeeding also fostered a highly developed sensitivity to baby signals and subtle cues, such as body movements and facial expressions, that precede crying. This does not mean, however, that babies in these cultures never cry. While they rarely cried during the day, it was quite common for infants to cry for long periods in the evening.4 Adults knew this was release crying and allowed it. As Sandy Jones says in Crying Babies, Sleepless Nights, “There’s a difference between not responding and responding and allowing, in which you’ve used your judgment about what your baby seems to need.” People in these cultures, because of their own experience of responsive parenting and a strong social support system, are quite able to automatically and naturally discriminate between a baby’s distressed crying out for help and other kinds of communication. The baby’s cry rarely pushes the parent into egoistic impulses.
Egoism and Altruism
Researchers have found that people respond to babies’ cries in either an egoistic or an altruistic manner. Egoistic responses are characterized by agitation and concern with self; one wants to stop the baby’s crying because it is aggravating. Altruistic responses are characterized by empathic discomfort; one wants to alleviate the baby’s suffering. Egoism and altruism are fostered by both biology and culture. Maternal hormones, such as prolactin, have been shown to be a factor in an altruistic response to infant crying; these hormones are elevated by extended contact and breastfeeding.5Our culture, in many ways, encourages and cultivates egoism. We have isolated people more and more over the last several generations. Thus, the social support network for most new parents is nonexistent. The demands of our economy and our social values motivate both parents to provide financial income, often at the cost of increased stress for parents and infants.
Social Support Crucial to the Parent-Infant Bond
Studies reveal that the social support network is very closely related to the security of the parent infant bond. A lack of external support can distance parents from their babies and thus threaten the baby’s healthy development. Babies who are “high need” — colicky, hypersensitive criers — are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect in situations where parents are suffering marital or financial difficulties. A good social support system can mitigate problems between baby and parent. Unresponsive mothers, who are given a lot of support, help, encouragement and physical affection can become responsive to their babies, and babies who have a lot of contact with loving friends, grandparents, and caregivers are not as affected by difficulties in the mother-infant attachment6The philosophies of the behaviorists in the early part of the lastcentury spawned several generations of people who lacked the basic security of a strong parental bond. We, and many of our parents and grandparents, grew up concerned with our own security above all; the anxious attachment created by the anti-spoiling atmosphere of infancy could only bring about self-concern.
Responsiveness Reduces Crying
The result of this culturally promoted egoism is an overall lack of responsiveness to babies, which fosters more crying. Bell and Ainsworth’s studies showed that not responding properly to babies’ cries in the first six months actually increases the frequency of crying and distress in the next six months and later.8Battering is an egoistic response. According to Steele and Pollack’s work, abusing parents (often the victims of abuse themselves) frequently have extreme views about spoiling and independence training — views handed down and culturally reinforced — which contribute to their baby’s distress, thus further agitating the already stressed parent.9 In addition, these views inhibit close contact, carrying, and breastfeeding, thus lowering the chances of hormonal support fro sympathetic responses.
It does little good to recoil in shock at the statistics on battered children when our entire cultural set-up actually creates this behavior. Battering is an extreme example; almost all of us are caught in this cycle in one way or another. Most new parents in our culture periodically experience high levels of stress, regardless of their philosophies. Who has not had thoughts of “throwing the baby out the window” or fears of losing control and shaking or screaming at a crying baby?
How Can We Heal the Split?
Like all of us, babies have many different reasons for crying. Unfortunately, we have lost much of our capacity to intuit their thoughts and feelings. Most people are able to recognize a sharp cry of pain, but our interpretation of other cries and fusses are filtered through the veil of our own insecurities and projections.10 It may be easier to adopt a mechanistic philosophy, whereby one always responds in the same way — either ignoring or hushing. But babies are not interested in philosophy and are unable to attend to their parent’s (or anyone else’s) comfort. To begin to get a more centered awareness, observe yourself when your baby (or someone else’s) cries. When you understand your reactions, you will be able to begin to understand the baby. Notice what a crying baby stimulates for you. Breathe deeply, relax your body, perhaps think of an affirmation such as “I release fear and tension, and go with love to comfort my baby.” If it is someone else’s baby crying, imagine that it is you and picture yourself, as an adult, soothing yourself as an infant. In my seminars, I use an exercise that helps people (not only parents) identify the feelings and reactions:
The next time you hear a baby cry, jot down the images and feelings that come into your mind. Circle each word or phrase, and connect it with others. Each word will suggest another, then another. Continue doing this until it feels complete. Now, using this “map,” compose a short poem or paragraph. What does your poem tell you about yourself? Sometimes people find that the anguish they hear in a baby’s cry is really their own. When you let go of this fear, you can hear what the baby is really saying.
It is not necessary to overanalyze yourself or your baby. Just take some time to think about how you respond to your baby’s cues. Eventually, you will find the intuitive bond growing between you and your baby, and your confidence in understanding his or her needs increasing day by day. Dr. William Sears, author of The Fussy Baby, advises parents to picture several response buttons on their “internal computer.” “If your baby cries and you push the right response button,” he says, “there is an inner feeling of rightness about your response.” Daily massage can be an aid in this process, because it helps you to literally keep in touch with your baby’s body language and nonverbal signals. Changing our society begins at home. Even so, there are opportunities to influence the culture beyond our own doorstep. We can help grandparents, friends, and prospective parents gain an awareness of babies’ needs. We can make an effort to provide support and encouragement to friends with new babies. We can also model consideration of babies at social functions and in public.
I was standing in line at a department store, and a baby in a stroller began to cry. Several people nearby became uncomfortable, some scowled and whispered. The baby’s mother picked him up and turned with a warm smile to the others standing in line. “He has a lot to say!” she shouted. Instantly, everyone smiled and relaxed. One woman reached over and patted the baby. Forcing babies to “cry it out,” hushing babies’ cries by stopping up their mouths, and letting babies cry “cathartically” can all be excuses for not taking the time to listen to what they have to say. There is no quick fix. A good parent — a good culture — must go through the sometimes difficult process of responding to babies’ cues individually, with compassion and with common sense.
1. A. Sagi and M. Hoffman, “Empathic Distress in the Newborn,” Developmental Psychology 12 (1976): 175-176; and M. Simner, “Newborn’s
Response to the Cry of Another Infant,” Developmental Psychology 5 *1971): 135-150.
2. A. Murray, “Infant Crying as an Elicitor of Parental Behavior,” Psychological Bulletin 86 (`979): 200- 201, 211.
3. N. Burton-Jones, “Comparative Aspects of Mother-Child Contract.” In Ethological Studies of child Behavior (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972).
4. T. Brazelton, “Crying in Infancy,” Pediatrics 29 (1962): 579-588; I. Devore and M. Konner, “Infancy in a Hunter-Gatherer Life: An Ethological Perspective,” in Ethology and Psychiatry (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1974) ; M. Konner, “Aspects of a Developmental Ethology of Foraging People,” in Ethological Studies of Child Behavior (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972); and M. Mead and N. Newton, “Cultural Patterning of Perinatal Behavior,” in Childbearing; Its Social and Psychological Aspect (Baltimore, MD: Williams and Williams, 1967).
5. A. Murray, “Infant Crying as an Elicitor of Parental Behavior,” Psychological bulletin 86 (1979): 204-208.
6. S. Crockenberg, “Infant Irritability, Mother Responsiveness, and social Support Influences in the Security of Infant Mother Attachment,” Child Development 52 (1981): 855-865.
7. A. Lieberman, “Preschooler’s Competence with a Peer: Relations with Attachment and Peer Experience,” Child Development 48 (1977): 1277-1287: and L. Matas, R. Arend, and L. Stroufe, “Continuity in Adaptation: quality of Attachment and Later Competence,” Child Development 49 (1978): 547-556.
8. S. Bell and M. Ainsworth, “Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness,” Child Development 43 (1972): 1171-1190.
9. B. Steele and C. Pollock, “A Psychiatric Study of Parents Who Abuse Infants and Small Children.” In The Battered Child (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
10. M. Sherman, “Differentiation of Emotional Responses in Infant: The Ability of Observers to Judge the Emotional Characteristics of Crying in Infants,” Journal of comparative Psychology 7 (1927): 335-351.
I Massaged and Carried My Baby, and Continued My Research
I began massaging my baby shortly after he was born. I started with the traditional massage I had learned in India, and due to my research and my observations, I gradually added and subtracted elements that were backed up by professional research and because of my yoga teaching, my knowledge of the lymph system and the importance of including massage and movements to stimulate it. Lymph carries toxins through its own system and helps push the toxins out through the gastrointestinal system. It has no innate way to circulate on its own — movement of some kind helps circulate the lymph. The circulation of lymph is one of the foundations of yoga postures.
After my first baby was born, I continued studying bonding and its elements, strapping him to my chest (in a new product, invented by an acquaintance of mind, called a “Snugli”) and heading off to the medical library several times a week. By that time I massaged my baby daily and, as much as possible, carried him in a front pack on my chest.
A Massage Routine that Could be Taught
After massaging my baby every day for three months and continuing my research, I developed a massage routine that could be taught. My baby was “colicky” and so I used massage and yoga postures to help mature his gastrointestinal system. The routine I developed was always successful in reducing, then eliminating, the cries of colic. The massage helped move fecal matter and gas through the intestines and down through the colon, easily eliminated by the baby’s natural system. Using the strokes and movements I developed, a baby’s colic is relieved within two weeks. I included my Colic Relief Routine in the curriculum I was developing.
Massage Speeds Myelination of the Brain and Nervous System
The natural sensory stimulation of massage speeds myelination of the brain and the nervous system. The myelin sheath is a fatty covering around each nerve, like insulation around electrical wire. It protects the nervous system and speeds the transmission of impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. The process of coating the nerves is not complete at birth, but skin stimulation speeds the process, thus enhancing rapid neural-cell firing and improving brain-body communication.
Research Finds Infants Sensitive to “Pleasant Touch”
There are two studies whose results are that “pleasant touch” is good for babies. They say that a gentle touch or caress, deemed “pleasant touch,” stimulates a baby’s senses and induces a response indicative of parent-infant bonding. New research into the matter now finds that these interactions are not only important for bonding, but that they also build on the child’s social and physiological development.
One article says, “Our results provide physiological and behavioral evidence that sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in development and therefore plays an important role in regulating human social interactions.”The findings are important because they show that the implicit meaning of pleasant touch — to stimulate bonding — develops as early as infancy. In turn, these social interactions carry on into adulthood, as many adults lightly caress, or pet, their partner to express love and affection.
An article in Scientific American reported that children lacking this kind of interaction (“pleasant touch”) — often those who end up in foster care or orphanages — tend to have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol as they grow older.High levels of cortisol are present in depression and anxiety disorders. “This lack of affection,”say the researchers, “can result in a child who develops emotional, behavioral, and social problems later in life.”
Cognitive neuroscientist Merle Fairhurst and colleagues of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, knew that previous studies with adults show that a specific type of touch receptor is activated in response to a particular stroking velocity, leading to the sensation of “pleasant” touch. They hypothesized that this type of response emerges as early as infancy.
Strokes of Medium Velocity Work Best
Babies show unique physiological and behavioral responses to pleasant touch, which helps to cement the bonds between parent and child. For this study, Fairhurst and colleagues had infants sit in their parents’ laps while the experimenter stroked the back of the infant’s arm with a paintbrush. The results showed that the babies’ heart rate slowed in response to the brushstrokes when the strokes were of medium velocity; in other words, the touch of the medium-velocity brush helped to decrease their physiological arousal. The infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. The more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.
The most engaging response came with the medium-velocity strokes, which not only lowered the babies’ heart rate, but also caused them to become more curious about the brush as it stroked them. Further strengthening the relationship between pleasant touch and parent-child bonding, the researchers found that parents whose self-reported sensitivity to touch was higher were more likely to have children who responded more to the pleasant touch of the paintbrush.
Pleasant Touch Plays a Vital Role in Human Social Interactions
The researchers noted that this link between caregiver and infant could be supported by both “nurture” and “nature” explanations. “Social touch is genetically heritable and therefore correlated between caregiver and infants,”Fairhurst said. According to the researchers, the findings “support the notion that pleasant touch plays a vital role in human social interactions by demonstrating that the sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in human development.”
With Massage, Babies Experience Bonding in their DNA
This study indicates that a baby who is massaged regularly, receiving “pleasant” touch, will experience bonding in the infant’s very DNA, and is therefore more likely to naturally bond with his/her own children later in life. It also reminds us to teach the strokes in a way that is “medium velocity”; that is, not too light, not too heavy. In my experience, most parents err on the side of too light a stroke, and often need to be encouraged to be a little more firm in their massage. When they know that their baby responds better to a firmer stroke, they gain confidence. I often asked them to think of a cat licking her kittens; the “stroke” is just right; the kittens rely on the mother’s strength to feel grounded and cared-for.
Research Suggests that Touch is as Important to Infants and Children as Eating and Sleeping
Dr. Tiffany Field has said, “Our research suggests that touch is as important to infants and children as eating and sleeping.”She notes that loving touch triggers physiological changes that help infants grow and develop, stimulating nerves in the brain that facilitate food absorption and lowing stress hormone levels, resulting in improved immune system functioning. A report by the Families and Work Institutes states that during the first three years of life, the vast majority of connections between brain cells are formed They conclude that loving interaction such as massage can directly affect a child’s emotional development and ability to handle stress as an adult.
Premature Babies Benefit Tremendously from Massage
Studies with premature babies using the massage and holding methods in my book have demonstrated that daily massage is of tremendous benefit. In 1984, an instructor from my organization did an in-service talk at the University of Miami Medical Center. Dr. Tiffany Field became very interested in the effects of touch and massage on premature infants. She founded the Touch Research Institute after a groundbreaking study on premature babies and massage. Her research has shown remarkable results and eventually earned her the “Golden Goose Award,” which honors scientists whose federally funded research may not have seemed to have significant practical applications at the time it was conducted but has resulted in major benefits to society.
The key discovery — that touch, in the form of infant massage, can vastly improve the outcome for babies born prematurely — has affected millions of lives around the world and saved billions of dollars in healthcare costs in the United States alone. In one study, twenty premature babies were massaged three times daily for fifteen minutes each. They averaged forty-seven percent greater weight gain per day, were more active and alert, and showed more mature neurological development than infants who did not receive massage. In addition, their hospital stay averaged six days less — a long time for parents, and thousands of dollars of care.
I included a chapter on premature babies in the manuscript for my book. Because of the support of a noted pediatrician, I was able to work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of a prominent Denver hospital. I did not touch or massage the babies myself, feeling it is important for parents to bond with their newborns, even in the NICU, with their babies often attached to cords, tubes, etc. I taught parents one-to-one how to use Touch Relaxation and Resting Hands, methods I developed to begin a skin-to-skin bond preceding massage. The experience I had with these parents and babies was amazing. Regardless of their age or the amount of care they needed, every baby responded remarkably well to parents’ touch.