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  • E.S.

The Birth of a Family

I watched a new dad nervously tend to his newborn son one morning. I was giving his wife a massage after her traumatic birth experience. She spoke only in her native tongue, so we relied on her husband to interpret for us. He was busily focused on swaddling their new baby. It was an unfamiliar task to him as he smoothed out the soft blanket and carefully laid his son in the middle of it. Tiny arms and legs flailed as the infant expressed his discontent. Casting an anxious glance toward his exhausted wife, he said, “I think he is hungry. He needs to eat.” Too tired to open, her eyes, she made no response. She had just literally labored for days giving birth to their little one. Turning back to the crying boy on the blanket, the young dad attempted to make folds in the blanket with the precision of an origami artist while his son energetically undid his father’s work with all the strength in his little body. Finally, with a triumphant exhalation, the father scooped up his swaddled son and peered down at him. To his surprise, the infant quieted in his arms. “Oh! He likes that! What do I do?” he exclaimed in surprise, looking at me. “Yes, he likes that. He cannot see very far right now, so you need to put your face close to him so he can look at you. But babies have a very good sense of smell right after they are born. Even if he cannot see you, he knows your scent and he knows your voice. Keep him close and talk to him and sing to him. He knows who his daddy is.” I watched as this man gazed at his son in wonder. The young woman in the hospital bed opened her eyes and said something. Her husband’s smile was wide as he told me, “She said she thought I told her before that I didn’t know how to take care of a child.” “Clearly, you do.” And as he gazed intently at the newborn baby in his arms, I saw a young man transform into a father in his own mind. The atmosphere in the room changed, and a family was born.

The things that I told this young father are simple facts that I share in my infant massage classes. When I first became a mom, I knew the facts but I did not understand their implications. Unlike this young family, I have lived most of my life in North America. I grew up in Canada, but the last several decades have been spent here on the East Coast of the United States. My Ivy League education did nothing to prepare me for motherhood. My many social advantages were of no practical use when it came to dealing with a squalling infant. Based on my assumption that my baby could not communicate until he could speak, I turned to books and experts for reasons as to why he was so colicky. I tried everything I could. I wore my baby all day. I put him on the dryer when it was running. I drove in circles around the neighborhood. I ate nothing that had the possibility of upsetting my baby’s digestion. I adopted strict feeding schedules that left me severely sleep deprived. I tried sleep training. I tired co-sleeping. I bought all kinds of battery-powered baby equipment to try to soothe him. The only thing I didn’t do was learn what he was trying to tell me. I started out my parenting journey with many

assumptions about my own inadequacies and incompetence. My goal is to empower the new parents that I encounter so that they do not have to live with the same self-doubt that defeated me.

I have found no teaching tool more powerful than infant massage and I wish I had learned it when my children were young. The secret of infant massage is not in the technique. Its power lies in its ability to forge bonds between baby and caregiver. When you commit to setting aside time each day, or maybe just some time each week, to just focus on your baby after all their needs have been met, the result could be transformational. For this reason, the International Association of Infant Massage insists on a 5-week curriculum. The strokes can be taught in an hour. But the priceless interaction between parent and baby must be carefully cultivated and fostered with patience and skill. Like learning a new language or a musical instrument, this form of hands-on communication with a baby takes repetition and commitment. With time, it becomes second nature. And yes, it is very much a form of communication. So much so that the first thing we teach is how to ask permission. Shouldn’t every child be empowered to say no to unwanted touch? And thus the first lesson is a lifelong skill.

Infant massage is intended to be taught to parents and caregivers. I would love to massage every baby that falls under my fingertips but it is a privilege that should be reserved for those closest to them. Babies are wired to bond but parents are sometimes too stressed, too sleep-deprived, and in our society that has become so nervous about close contact, maybe a little reluctant to touch beyond the basic caregiving tasks of feeding, changing and bathing. Infant massage enables a parent to touch with intention and purpose, all the while reading cues of engagement and disengagement from the baby. I firmly believe that a parent who communicates unconditional love through word and gesture, and a child who feels safe and loved is a powerful duo that can transform communities.

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