Why Ask Permission to Touch the Baby?

By Suzanne P. Reese, IAIMT, author of Baby Massage, www.infantmassageusa.org

The concept of asking a baby for permission for anything can be foreign to a lot of people, not just parents. Resistance often lies in, “The baby won’t (or can’t) understand what I’m saying” or “I don’t ask my children for permission for anything.” Given where we are in Western culture, these are logical filters through which many people’s thoughts run: Babies don’t understand much of anything and children should be learning to ask permission of their parents and elders, not the other way around.

Take an infant massage training or class and get ready for a cultural paradigm shift.

When I meet parents who claim their baby didn’t like massage, so they stopped the practice, the first question I ask is, “Did you ask permission to massage?” Often, parents are a bit stumped and the common answer is, “No, why would I do that?” Ah, let me tell you!

Asking a baby for permission to massage is critical to having a successful exchange of communication. Basically, baby massage is communication. Since baby massage is different from many other ways and reasons we touch our babies, it’s important babies learn they have a say in the matter. Baby massage is not about getting dressed or bathed, it’s not about getting strapped into a car seat — all things that usually have to happen in the course of any given day. Baby massage is a mutual agreement between parent/primary caregiver and Baby that communicates, “I love you.” It’s a reciprocal exchange of love through touch. When a baby is asked for permission to massage, the baby is receiving messages that communicate, “I see you, I hear you, I feel you, I’m listening, I want to understand, I love you,” and, fundamentally important, “You exist.”

Babies learn about their world through the interactions they have with their primary caregivers. When a baby is asked, “May I massage you?”, this is a key moment in fostering empowerment in the child. The child is empowered to learn to follow his/her state, mood, and know that this is a situation in which he has a choice. Additionally, the baby is learning this is a choice that will be acknowledged, understood, validated, and honored — all basic human virtues that babies need modeled for them to emotionally thrive.

With this, the baby is establishing a sense of who he is and is learning an early lesson that will stay with him for life: healthy social boundaries. When parents practice modeling healthy social boundaries with their infants, these babies grow up to understand how to be sensitive to other people. These early experiences can foster the ever-important quality: empathy.

Do babies understand the question? Yes! Babies understand a lot of things. It has nothing to do with spoken language, and everything to do with intention. Babies are intelligent beings who, often, are not given the credit they deserve. Babies know what they like and what they don’t like, and they are always communicating with the people in their world through nonverbal cues. Parents don’t have to actually say out loud, “May I massage you?” All they have to do is think it, feel it, and Baby will respond.

How will parents/primary caregivers know what their baby is saying? In the world of infant massage, we say “The baby is the teacher, and the parents are the experts.” You know your baby best.

So, let’s get back to the massage and asking Baby for permission. Once permission is granted, the massage can commence; however, throughout the massage, the baby’s cues and signals must be observed and honored. If not, then the massage becomes a treatment, a “do to” rather than a “do with” and that defeats the trust factor that asking permission can help establish. An infant’s primary psychosocial task is to establish trust, and being sensitive to the baby’s cues that say “I’m still OK with this, I like it” or “I’m all done, please stop” is critical to the trusting bond that baby massage and other forms of nurturing touch can help build. If the baby cannot trust, if the parent/primary caregiver does not establish that massage is an exchange that is safe, predictable, and reliable, then the success rate of the baby “liking” the massage plummets. For families that report their babies did not like the massage, it is these same families who did not know to ask their baby for permission. They unknowingly demonstrated to their baby that the massage is like any other “do to,” and the baby cannot trust that his signals that communicate “I’m not ready for this” or “I’m not in the mood for this” will not be honored.

Establishing healthy social boundaries early on in life can carry itself with the child throughout all relationships in life. Children who have healthy and safe relationships with their parent/primary caregiver void of blame, shame, and humiliation are children who can cope with the adversity and challenges of potential problems later in life. A well-attached child who is challenged by an attempted violation (physical or emotional) is likely to be a child who breaks that social pattern early. This is the child who is has the insight to recognize the discomfort, to stop it in it’s tracks by knowing how to say “no,” and to not fear going to the parent/primary caregiver — a place that has been established as safe, predictable, and reliable. The child sharing the experience can expect to be heard, understood, and validated. This is empowerment that starts with early health,y physical exchanges that honor a relationship built in trust.

Every time we touch our children, we are communicating something. When we ask for permission to touch, children learn to extend that same grace to others. This is humility in action. “May I massage you?” can make all the difference. All-of-a-sudden, a baby who previously gave signals that he didn’t like his massage is communicating in smiles and coos. This baby is finally part of the conversation, and he is willing participant in the exchanges that will continue to build a solid foundation of trust. It’s an infant’s primary developmental task. Trust is a primary task in any relationship, so this approach works in any relationship, because all humans want to be acknowledged, validated, and understood. When it comes to matters of the heart, infants are not so different from their caregivers, and this is a lesson in human virtues that starts well before kindergarten.

8 thoughts on “Why Ask Permission to Touch the Baby?”

  1. Suzanne, thank your for this beautifully written post about an extremely important subject. Two-way communication with babies is an integral element of the child care approach I teach and share about on my blog (Magda Gerber’s RIE approach). My blog is often criticized in Attachment Parenting circles as being “over the top” because I recommend communicating with babies from the beginning as we would another “real” and whole person. So, I’m thrilled to see a professional within API recommending this!

    I would add that our descriptive words are even more important when babies don’t have a “choice”, for example, “I’m going to pick you up now. And now I’m going to place you on the changing table. Can you lift your arm and place it through this sleeve? Oh, this wipe is going to be a little cold. Here it comes.” Babies deserve this respect.

    I would also argue that it *is* important to get into the habit of saying the words out loud. (Yes, it feels odd at first.) This not only ensures we will remember to be respectful, it is also the most brilliant way for our children to learn the language we want them to learn. Children learn best when it is meaningful to them…and there is nothing more meaningful to babies that what is *happening* in their world and to their bodies.

    Thanks again for expressing this idea so well in the context of infant massage… I truly hope this will someday be common knowledge and the way we interact with babies, period.

  2. Hello Janet, Thank you so much for such supportive comments. In an effort to clear up any misunderstanding, I offer the option to communicate non-verbally, because there are times when asking non-verbally is appropriate. So much can be conveyed non-verbally, and parents should not have to feel like every time they ask their baby for consent to commence this mutual exchange, that they must ask out loud. Baby massage is part of the dyadic dance where both partners are becoming more attuned to the other, and it is in these subtle exchanges that, sometimes, profound communication occurs.

    There are special situations where there might be a hearing impairment, a language barrier or a challenge in verbal language skills where non-verbal communication is key. A non-verbal approach, where the consent is communicated on a visceral or energetic level can be appropriate and effective.

    We cannot know every single situation each family is in and what freedoms or limitations they may or may not have. For that reason, the way we teach infant massage, including the actual strokes and the baby-lead approach, is always presented in a way that can serve all families and babies.

    Again, thank you for your support. It is very much acknowledged and appreciated.

  3. Suzanne, we can agree to disagree about the importance of verbal communication with babies. Talking to a baby about what will happen to her body is *always* the ideal and most appropriate action, whenever that is possible…and for most people (in most situations) it is. As a society, we just aren’t used to treating babies this way.

    So, yes, I realize that respectful communication with pre-verbal children is not yet the norm, but I strongly recommend trying it. This approach has been life changing for those of us who practice it…and certainly something every child care educator should recommend.

  4. When I first read the title of the article, I thought it was about touching a baby in general. It’s not, and it’s ok too 🙂 because the baby massage subject is interesting.
    Still, I would like to mention touching in general. As a potential future mother (I’ve been reading about AP for a couple of years now) I’d like to make people around me aware of the fact that touching is not a neutral act/gesture. Some people like it, some don’t, the same goes for babies and I think it should be respected. When I see people on the street pinching the cheeks of an unknown round-faced baby (I was pretty round-faced as a child…), just because they think she’s cute, I feel like asking them “Would you do that to just anybody on the street ?”. Maybe it’s a cultural thing too (I’m French). But for me it falls into the same category as “babies don’t understand”… Sorry if I’m drifting away from the topic…

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