Stimulate your baby's senses gently and lovingly--especially his sense of touch--and you'll raise a smarter, healthier, larger, more secure child who is more closely bonded to you, his parents. So explains Sharon Heller, PhD in her 1997 research-based classic, The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact with your Baby Leads to Happier, Healthier Development. Citing study after study and expert after expert, Heller draws contrasts between the North American style of infant separation--cribs, strollers, and infant seats--and the closeness of "carrying cultures" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where babies are held (usually upright) or strapped to a caregiver for most of the day in the early months of their "extrogestation" outside the womb.
Heller devotes 235 pages to the benefits of vital touch. With so much research behind her recommendations, it's a wonder we don't receive instructions from our doctors to follow her prescriptions:
- Carry your infant or baby-wear for most of the day for the first 9 months of her life (preferably in an upright position, preferably on your left side)
- Massage your infant tenderly to stimulate growth hormones, digestive hormones, and to calm stress hormones
- Vocalize with your baby, using a special voice that is higher-pitched and melodic (so that your baby knows when to listen and when to tune you out)
- Be steady with your stimulation of Baby. Americans tend to overstimulate their infants with intense, short periods of sounds and faces followed by separation and boredom. According to Heller, this sets Baby up for a rollercoaster of expecting highs and lows in anxiety/intensity for the rest of his life. Instead, take your cues from the baby and provide engagement and tender touch more steadily.
Babywearing was recommended to me several times, but never by a doctor. And the pitch was always: strap baby to you, and you can have your hands free to do other things. How telling of our society, where we emphasize activity and getting back into "doing" in early motherhood. From now on, I'm going to sing the praises of carrying and babywearing to every parent I work with--not just as a way to free up mom's hands, but as a remarkable, evidence-based method for rearing a healthier, more bonded baby.