All We Need Is Love
By Brigid Godwin
Who doesn’t like a cuddle huh? That warm oozy feeling blended with the sweet unique scent of a loved one is absolutely one of life’s nuggets of joy. Nature rewards us with gifts when we are behaving in a way that supports socialisation and therefore the ongoing success of our species. So perhaps it’s not such a surprise to find out that cuddles and close physical contact with others are more than just nice, they are essential to our health and happiness. And nobody needs more cuddles than a new born baby does!
Dr Frederick Leboyer states in his in his ground-breaking 1974 book, ‘Childbirth without Violence’:
‘Being touched and caressed,
Being massaged, is food for the infant.
Food as necessary as minerals,
Vitamins, and proteins.’
Dr Frederick Leboyer.
When babies are born, the sensory overload can be incredibly upsetting for them. Leboyer paints a very graphic picture of a baby’s first terrifying moments in this world.
‘The nightmare of being born is not so much the pain as the fear. For the baby, the world is a terrifying place.’
These tiny creatures are raw sensory beings who feel things hugely and with little ability to self-regulate their stress levels. How well their stress is managed by their parents through touch, movement and massage has been proven to have far reaching implications for their physical and phycological wellbeing into adulthood.
A baby has been exposed to movement and touch throughout their gestation, but the process of being born vaginally gives baby it’s first full body massage. The huge squeeze of the uterus and the pressure through the tissue and bones of the pelvis help to dispel the amniotic fluid from baby’s lungs and readies their lungs for breathing. That first massage is also helping to stimulate their circulation and nervous systems giving them a kick start as they transition from aquatic to mammal.
When my cat gave birth to her 5 kittens under my bed, as each one of them was born she welcomed it into the world with a vigorous bath! While they were tiny she would spend hours every day licking them which served not only to clean them but more vitally to help their digestive functioning. Vimala McClure in her book ‘Infant Massage’ points out that kittens that are not licked sufficiently will die. A study with rats showed that rats who were gently stroked in infancy had higher immunity, faster weight gain and better neurological function.
During birth Mother Nature also welcomes the baby with a gift of love in the form of the intoxicating and pleasure giving hormones, oxytocin and endorphins.
Oxytocin is produced in abundance during delivery by both mother and baby and shared between the two across the placenta. It is the hormone that helped mum’s uterus launch the baby out, but also, on delivery is now saturating mum and baby’s brains making them feel totally connected, calm and in love. Oxytocin isn’t just produced when giving birth, it is also produced when we feel physical or emotional connection to others; cuddles, sex, breast feeding, deep conversations, holding hands, massage and even thinking about a loved one all produce oxytocin. Those first cuddles lay the foundations of successful bonding helping mother and baby to feel deeply and passionately connected. Well bonded parents will kiss and touch their babies often. Ongoing massage, cradling and rocking keeps the oxytocin flowing between baby and it’s parents ensuring a healthy bond and a happy family even through the stresses of parenthood.
Endorphins, powerful opiates that help mum and baby cope with the intensity of the birthing sensations also stay raised for the hours after birth making mum and baby both feel ‘high’ as well as engendering feelings of mutual dependency. Endorphins also have the incredible function of giving mum the desire to reach out to others for help, therefore ensuring that she gets the support she needs to look after her baby properly! How clever is that?!
Other magic takes place in that first cuddle. As mum gazes into her baby’s eyes, perhaps taking it to her breast for a first feed and smelling her unique smell, the warmth of mum’s body enables baby to regulate its body temperature while mum’s friendly bacteria populate babies skin and digestive tract ensuring the health of their gut and their ability to digest mums milk properly. But that’s still only the start, as Vimala McClure is about to explain:
‘Loving touch triggers physiological changes that help infants grow and develop, stimulating nerves in the brain that facilitate food absorption and lowering stress hormones resulting in improved immune system function.’Vimala McClure
Studies conducted at the University of Colorado amongst other places, have shown that the babies of mothers who don’t easily connect with their babies through touch and cuddles and talking are more likely to suffer from retardation of developmental growth.
‘People don’t realise that communication for a baby, the first communications it receives, and the first language of its development is through the skin. If only most people had realised this, they would have all along given babies the kind of skin stimulation they require.’ Anthropologist Ashley Montagu quoted in ‘Infant Massage’.
In a number of studies, premature babies who have been massaged every day compared with babies who hadn’t, had put on more weight, were ahead in neurological development and left hospital earlier. It’s thought that one of reasons for this is that massage, cuddles and touch trigger the production of Growth hormone and also help the development of the myelin sheath around the nerves of the brain and nervous system which protects the nervous system and speeds up the electrical impulses from the brain to the body.
It’s not just that first cuddle that matters, it’s the quality and quantity of touch, movement and cuddles that the baby receives through their whole infancy that can impact on various developmental and attachment processes.
Sue Gerhardt in her wonderful book ‘Why Love Matters’ explains another level of this physiology. Human babies can’t manage their own stress. The part of their brain that processes the stress hormone cortisol, the hippocampus, isn’t yet fully formed. Babies who are rocked, stroked and fed on demand have low levels of cortisol. If, however, a baby doesn’t have their cortisol managed by their parent then the hippocampus is flooded with stress hormones and this can restrict the development of this part of the brain, meaning the child’s ability to process cortisol as an adult may be hindered and therefore they may find it harder to cope with stress.
‘On the other hand, those who are touched and held a great deal in babyhood, who receive plenty of attention in early life, have been found to have an abundance of cortisol receptors in the hippocampus in adulthood.’Sue Gerhardt
Across many cultures studies have shown that societies who care for their babies with massage, baby wearing, rocking and breastfeeding are less aggressive and violent adults and more cooperative and compassionate.
‘Massage, perhaps, makes them at home in their world, not enemies or conquerors of it…. Rather than growing up selfish and demanding (although 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.’ Vimala McClure
Movement and lots of it are absolutely vital for our health. Our bodies were made to move, in all planes and terrains and all 3 dimensions.
Massage helps babies to discover their bodies in a supportive and loving way laying foundations for exploration and self-respect. If a baby had a difficult birth, then they may be holding onto some of that trauma in their bodies. Babies also experience stress in other forms as they negotiate the world – massage can help them to release it by teaching them very valuable lessons about stress management which they can use for the rest of their lives.
Baby massage also offers fathers, especially of breast fed babies, a chance to connect in a meaningful and tender way with their babies.
Brigid Godwin is a Developmental Baby Massage Teacher, a Yoga Alliance Senior Yoga Teacher, a Birthlight Perinatal teacher, an Active Birth Teacher (trained by Janet Balaskas), a KGH Hypnobirth trainer, a BWY 500 hour yoga teacher and has over 20 years teaching experience.
She runs Postnatal Yoga and Baby Massage classes for mums and dads in Tunbridge Wells and Penshurst. Also Pregnancy Yoga, Active Birth and Hypnobirth classes for couples.
Next Daddy and Me Yoga and Massage workshop on Saturday 2nd November 2019.
Mummy and Me Postnatal Yoga and Massage classes ongoing.
Infant Massage - Vimala McClure –
Birth Without Violence - Frederick Leboyer
Move Your DNA - Katy Bowman
Why Love Matters - Sue Gerhardt
Developmental Baby Massage – Peter Walker