THE ROLE OF VOCALIZATION IN INFANT MASSAGE
Another element in the dance of bonding is vocalization. From the moment she first responded to sound at around seven months gestation, your infant has been listening to your voice. Her body moves in rhythm with your speech patterns, and the high-pitched tone you use when talking to her is particularly sweet to her ears. During her massage, you might sing a song or tell a story. She will come to associate certain sounds with the massage. Repeat her name and say the word “relax” to gently teach her how to release tension.
Infant massage helps enhance the bond begun at birth. A baby learns to enjoy the wonderful comfort and security of loving and being loved. He acquires knowledge about his own body as his parent shows him how to relax a tense arm or leg, or helps him to release painful gas. His parent looks into his eyes, sings, talks soothingly, and gently strokes his skin. Thus each day the dance of bonding begins all over again.
“I feel much closer to my baby and more in tune with her body,” says Debbie, mother of three-month-old Kelly. “Knowing that she is growing so fast, it is precious to be able to keep in touch with her little body and experience her growth day by day. I think she feels closer to me also, and there is a real trust developing because of our daily massage. I want to treasure her infancy with all its joys and problems. Massage is a wonderful way for me to do that. The benefits to my baby—physically and emotionally—are extra gifts.”
“Both the child and the parent play a role in the child’s later language outcomes, and our study is the first to show that,” says HESP professor Nan Bernstein Ratner. While it is clinically proven that parents naturally speak more slowly and in a specialized “singsong” tone to their children, the findings from this study will perhaps encourage parents to be more conscious of repeating words to maximize language development benefits.
A U.S. study shows that the repetitive babbles of babies are primarily motivated by the infants’ ability to hear themselves. “Hearing is a critical aspect of infants’ motivation to make early sounds,” says study author Mary Fagan, an assistant professor of communication science and disorders in the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Health Professions. “The fact that they attend to and learn from their own behaviors, especially in speech, highlights how infants’ own experiences help their language, social and cognitive development,” she adds. This research, Fagan says, does not diminish the importance of the speech that babies hear from others.
In our infant massage classes, we incorporate parents singing to their babies as soon as the parents feel confident in delivering many of the strokes. When I was developing our program, I found that singing a slow, repetitive, rhythmic lullaby helped both me and my baby to relax and have fun with the massage. I believe it is an important part of the parent-infant bonding that is the cornerstone of infant massage, and I believe that recent studies, such as the one described below, confirm that assumption. This is a break from traditional Indian baby massage, which is often performed in silence.
A study by researcher Shannon Delecroix investigates how a mother’s singing may teach her baby to control his emotions. Delecroix has spent years studying how a mother’s music can influence a child’s development. She found that “infant-directed singing” does more than create a bond; it helps babies learn focus and self-control. “It also helps babies modulate their arousal level,” she says, “so they’re not over-or under-aroused; they’re kind of ‘in the zone.’ ”
One parent says that music helps her structure her infant’s day. “It’s a cue to her when we’re going to start different activities,” she says. “I have certain songs I sing to her when we’re going to start different activities; I have certain songs I sing to her in the morning so she knows it’s time to wake up, others I sing to her at night when it’s time to go to bed.”
In another study, researchers used a Jolly Jumper to study the emergence of something called “rhythmic entrainment.” Babies are outfitted with motion sensors and then exposed to various types of music and tempos. Delecroix says, “The way the infant responds to a particular musical stimulus tells us a lot about how the human brain is wired.”
From the moment I incorporated a rhythmic lullaby into our daily massage, I knew it was important. It structures the massage, because singing this lullaby—the one we use most often is the Bengali lullaby “Ami Tomake Balobhasi Baby” (meaning “I love you, my baby” in the Bengali language)—has a rhythm that goes beautifully with the rhythm of the strokes. These studies confirmed for me that our singing of “Ami Tomake” is spot-on.
According to a study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, babies have some important lessons to share about bonding and the power of music. The findings show that music has important social effects on infants—as long as the little ones and their parents aren’t just listening passively, says Laura Cirelli, the study’s lead author and a researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
“There’s this idea that if we just play music in the background, then our kids are going to grow up to be geniuses, and that’s really not what research is suggesting,” Cirelli says. “If there are benefits of musical activities, it really comes from active engagement in the music.” Many families already use music to engage with their kids. The study suggests that “when parents are singing lullabies to infants and rocking them, the babies are actually thinking about them, too,” Cirelli says. The same goes for infant massage.
According to Sophie Freeman in an article for the Daily Mail, “Researchers found that infants remained relaxed for twice as long when listening to a song—even if it was unfamiliar—as they did when listening to speech.” This is interesting news for infant massage, indicating that our use of a rhythmic lullaby will soothe and calm the baby being massaged, even more than talking to the baby.
Professor Isabelle Peretz, from the University of Montreal’s Center for Research on Brain, Music, and Language, says, “Our findings leave little doubt about the efficacy of singing nursery rhymes for maintaining infants’ composure for extended periods.” She added that singing might reduce feelings of frustration felt by some parents.
Infants are Motivated by Hearing Themselves
Apparently, the repetitive babbles of babies primarily are motivated by the infants’ ability to hear themselves. “Hearing is a critical aspect of infants’ motivation to make early sounds,” said study author Mary Fagan, an assistant professor of communication science and disorders in the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Health Professions.
“The fact that they attend to and learn from their own behaviors, especially in speech, highlights how infants’ own experiences help their language, social and cognitive development,” she added. This research, Fagan said, does not diminish the importance of the speech that babies hear from others. “We know they need to learn from others—but it raises our awareness that infants are not just passive recipients of what others say to them. They are actively engaged in their own developmental process.”
Fagan studied the babbles of 27 hearing infants and 16 infants with profound hearing loss before and after they received cochlear implants (small electronic devices embedded into the bone behind the ear that replace some functions of the damaged inner ear).
Before receiving cochlear implants, babies with profound hearing loss rarely produced repetitive vocalizations, such as ‘ba-ba’ or ‘da-da.’ Within a few months of receiving cochlear implants, the number of babies who produced repetitive vocalizations increased, the number of vocalizations that contained repetitive syllables increased, and the number of actual repetitions in the string, such as ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,’ increased, Fagan said.
“The research tells us that infants are motivated by hearing the sounds they produce, so these sounds are functional in some way,” she said.
Figar, W. P., and C. Moon. “Psychology of newborn auditory preferences.” Seminars in Perinatology 13 (1989).
Peretz, I., and M. Corbeil. “Babies remain calm twice as long when listening to song compared to speech.” Child Health News, University of Montreal, 2015.
Spence, M., and A. De Caster. “Prenatal experience with low-frequency maternal voice sounds influences neonatal perception of maternal voice sales.” Infant Behavior and Development 10 (1987).