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.