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Baby Love

by Elizabeth Pantley

An excerpt from Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children, Contemporary Books, released October 2000

Linda turned off the clock radio and tiptoed down the stairs. She flicked on the coffee maker and settled herself in at her computer. The early-morning stillness reminded her anew of how very much she enjoyed this peaceful time, when she was the only one awake. Another reason she loved being up first: she could relish the sounds of her home coming to life, sounds unique to every household.

As if on cue, the baby monitor on the corner of her desk telegraphed an end to the silence. Linda easily could mistake the tentative little coos for those of the mourning doves outside, if not for the fuzzy static that accompanied the tiny baby’s babbling. After one quick sip of her coffee, Linda headed upstairs, hoping to get to the baby before her failure to appear turned the gentle coo into a piercing wail.

Reaching the nursery in plenty of time, Linda picked her soft pink bundle up out of the crib and carried her over to the changing table. The mother took pleasure in her morning routine of changing, powdering, and dressing her little one for the day. The house was still chilly; Linda was grateful for the baby-wipe warmer she’d gotten as a shower present. As soon as their routine was completed, Linda dropped a soggy packet into the diaper disposal unit, turned off the electronic musical screen that kept Joy amused during the change, and plodded back downstairs.

"Time to make breakfast," she said to her smiling baby, who understood little but the possibility of a snuggle. Linda settled Joy into her favorite bouncy seat, which was placed close to the counter so Joy could watch Mommy prepare meals. Linda chatted to Joy as she bustled from microwave to toaster to stove making breakfast. Just as she finished, a new morning sound greeted them in the kitchen: the pitter-patter of big brother feet. Those feet brought Ethan first to Mommy for a hug and kiss, then up on tiptoes to kiss the significantly smaller toes of his baby sister. “Put Joy in swing?” he asked, as he always did in the morning.

"Sure, sweetie," Linda answered. "Good idea. That’ll give me a minute to get a couple things done." She moved Joy over to the baby swing and watched in delight as Ethan made up songs to the rhythmic cranking of the musical swing.

Linda put a few dishes in the dishwasher and set the table for breakfast. Once Ethan was settled in his booster seat and Joy in her high chair, the three of them enjoyed a few golden moments of family life, the kind of moments we think of as ordinary at the time but magical in retrospect. Ethan always found Joy hysterical, squealing with delight at her innovative Cheerio-harvesting efforts; this morning, as usual, Joy came through, finding her tongue a handy alternative to the chubby creased fingers that never seemed to close in on those elusive O’s quickly enough. (Of course, once her cheeks were sporting enough drool, the whole-face method worked best of all.)

After cleanup, Linda packed the kids up to tackle a few errands. On the way to the shopping center, a smiling Linda peeked in the rearview mirror often, watching Ethan entertain Joy. Their carseats side by side, Ethan easily could lean over and make her toys dance and sing. Linda found Ethan as sweet and funny as his baby sister did. Ethan reveled in his big brother role, despite the occasional rubber cow whack to the face, as he was cheerfully accepting today.

When they arrived at the shopping center Linda popped out Joy’s car seat and secured it in the strolling base, waiting patiently as Ethan-the world’s newest do-it-yourselfer-unbuckled his seat belt and climbed down out of the van. Linda let Ethan walk and lead the way for a while, until his slow pace and intense interest in every passing object threatened to turn the morning’s errands into a weeklong event. “Come on, buddy,” she cajoled, “How ‘bout a ride in the stroller?” She settled him into the toddler seat behind Joy, and they finished their day’s tasks in no time.

Sure enough, on the way home, Joy and Ethan both fell asleep in their car seats. Linda smiled a mother’s smile at the site of Joy’s little sleeping face, with its bow-shaped lips curled in a smirk that belied some pleasant reverie, cheeks rosy and soft as the peaches they’d just bought. She carefully scooped her up, dreams and all, and carried her into the house.

After another trip to the car for her "big boy," Linda settled Ethan in his bed and Joy in her crib. In no time, she was back at her desk, finishing up her work-but not for long.

Again, the baby monitor came alive with sound. Linda went to Joy’s room quickly, and found that, sure enough, Joy’s nap was brief one. Linda, mindful of the grateful nose-burying ritual that her little daughter was performing, took Joy downstairs and put her in the bouncy seat near her desk. Linda narrated her work process to Joy, who showed her appreciation with her giggles and squeals. And thus, another day was passing in the gentle rhythm of a day in the life.

The Hidden Message

"Why should I carry you or hold you when I have all these modern baby contraptions to put you in?"

Think About It

Some call it a sign of progress. Some call it liberating. Some call it convenient. What is it? The myriad fancy, colorful baby carriers that can contain your baby in every conceivable situation and position. Bouncers, jumpers, rollers, seats, strollers, and swings. A virtual arsenal of inconvenience-fighting ground forces. But what do they provide from a baby’s point of view? A soft, warm embrace? (No, a cold, hard surface.) The essential and nurturing touch of love? (No, an unyielding plastic structure.) A feeling of unassailable safety? (No, a strange feeling of being near those you love and need, but too far away to receive comfort or get their attention.) Easy access to Mommy’s touch, her breast, her loving face? (No, too much distance from Mommy to even see her face at all.)

Research proves over and over that we human beings crave touch and physical closeness. Babies make their love of contact obvious though their own cuddles and wet kisses-how soon they learn to give these! Even those distant, sullen teenagers secretly love physical attention they get from their parents (despite the kids’ feigned protests). As adults, we continue to thrive on hugs, kisses, and other forms of affectionate human contact; we wither and die a little inside when our lives are void of these pleasures. Numerous books have been written about therapeutic touch and its power to heal emotional, as well as physical, hurts and ailments.

Jean Liedloff, in her fascinating anthropology book, The Continuum Concept, (Addison-Wesley Publishing company) writes "The change from the total hospitality of the womb is enormous, but, the infant has come prepared for the great leap from the womb to his place in arms. What he has not come prepared for is a greater leap of any sort, let alone a leap into nothingness, non-life, a basket with cloth in it, or a plastic box without motion, sound, odor, or the feel of life. The infant lives in the eternal now; the infant in arms in a state of bliss; the infant out of arms in a state of longing in the bleakness of an empty universe."

The most astounding proof that babies in particular have physical and emotional needs for loving touch is the success of a new way to care for premature babies: “kangaroo care.” It’s an approach that originated in Bogota, Columbia, by neonatologists Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez. At the time of their study, the mortality rate of premature babies in Bogota was 70% (due to lack of power and reliable equipment). As part of the research, the doctors had moms carry their preemies nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in specially designed sling carriers. The dramatic results? The morality rate fell to 30%! Further studies by other scientists revealed that kangarooed babies had a more regular heartbeat, a reduced need for supplemental oxygen, less time spent crying, and more time spent in a deep sleep, thereby conserving energy for growth and development. A Neonatal Network study also found increased intimacy and attachment between baby and parent who used a kangaroo care contact approach.

Katie Allison Granju, author of Attachment Parenting (Pocket Books, 1999), says that "human infants, like most mammal babies, are happiest, most comfortable, and develop best when they are kept physically close to a warm body much of the time.” Dr. William Sears, renowned pediatrician and my personal parenting hero (as described in the foreword of this book), says, “It is a natural, appropriate and desirable part of development for a baby to be dependent. A baby needs to bond with people before things." Frequent, appropriate touch builds bonds of trust that create security in an infant, and independence in an older child. A baby who knows the world to be a safe, manageable place will more readily separate from his parents later, when appropriate, than a baby who has learned to fear separation early on. Consider too, that the attachments you form with your baby set the stage for a connected life-long relationship.

Given this astounding evidence, why would you want your baby to spend her day shuffled from one plastic container to another? When asked, you tell people you “have” a baby. But do you have your baby-or do these contraptions?

Changes You Can Make

It’s amazingly easy to change the pattern of behavior that has you putting your baby down in a carrier. Pick up your child. Smell her hair, kiss her butter-soft cheek. Hear her breath in your ear. Wrap your arms around her and sense the sum of her, this living, breathing expression of life. Realize that you have but a few short years to hold her this way, and that you will miss this one day-and so will she. Understand that these moments are golden opportunities for you to know one another in a beautifully intimate way unique to childhood. Change the way you think about holding your baby, and soon you’ll find yourself more and more often with that soft bundle in your arms. And it’s habit forming!

Of course it’s fine to use carriers and seats for your baby to make your life easier! What’s important, though, is to make wise choices about using these devises so that they don’t become the prominent location for your baby’s life. Your might even look at ways to blend convenience with touch. Try one of the many soft carriers that enable you to carry your baby while keeping both hands free to work around the house or office, shop, go for walks, tend to other children-so many activities can be done easily with you “wearing” your baby! Slings, frontpacks, and backpacks are available in many different styles. A number of books discuss the pros and cons of each and give great instructions on how to use them. If you’d like more information, check out The Baby Book, by Dr. William and Martha Sears (Little Brown & Co., 1993), or Attachment Parenting, by Katie Allison Granju, as mentioned earlier.

Whatever tools you use to further the endeavor, do touch, hold, and cuddle your baby every chance you get. Give your toddler lots of hugs and kisses. Welcome your school-age child into your arms often. And give that teenager as much physical contact as he’ll allow. And give some of that soul-enriching touch to your spouse, too.

The most wonderful thing about cuddling is that it is never unreturned. Don’t believe me? Stop reading right now and go give your little one a good snuggle; I defy you to tell me you didn’t get cuddled back-and that you didn’t love it.

The words of a poem called "Human Touch" by Spencer Michael Free capture the spirit of this lesson:

It’s the human touch in this world that counts,
the touch of your hand in mine.
For it means far more to the fainting heart
than shelter, bread or wine.

For shelter is gone when the night is o’er
and bread lasts only a day.
But the touch of your hand and the sound of your voice
lives on in my soul always.

(Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Hidden Messages - What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 2001)


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