My Brain grows faster when you cuddle me...
“ Before I was born I was more aware of touch than of any other sense, and I was safely held in a small space. Now I can move freely, but I still feel most safe when I am in contact with a grown up who loves me.
Feeling safe with you fills my body with special chemicals that help my brain to grow. The patterns that grow in my brain when you cuddle me will mean that all my life I will be able to feel safe with safe people.
When I am close to you my body begins to work in tune with yours. When you feel excited or stressed your heart beats faster and so does mine. When you feel calm or happy your heart beats slower, and so does mine. Connections are building in my brain that will make it possible for me to control my body one day.
Remember that my brain works more slowly than yours, so I need time to notice what is happening and respond to it.”
• Cuddle your baby as often as you like – babies can’t have too much contact.
• Respect the space of infants as they grow older. There may be times when they don’t want a cuddle but you should try to find other ways to provide reassuring contact.
• Use different kinds of touching. Massage and stroking, tickling, hair-brushing and finger games (like ‘Round and round the garden’) are all good for your baby’s brain.
• Use gentle circular rubbing of the stomach to help a baby with wind or constipation.
• Babies need touch that soothes (cuddles) and touch that stimulates (tickles).
• Some very young babies (especially if they are small at birth) may sleep too much – gentle stroking or finger-play can encourage them to wake and feed.
• As well as cuddling, it is good to put your baby down to experience time on their own – this is the start of learning how to be independent.
The importance of touch
All sorts of touch can be included in the concept of ‘cuddle’. Stroking, patting, holding, feeding, hair care, nail care, massage, being carried, holding hands, and many more interactions involving physical contact are vital in building the relationship between the parent and the child.
Physical contact is essential for healthy brain development, and the second step of the attachment process is physical attunement, in which the bodies of the baby and the parent begin to work together in harmony, with the physiology of each changing to match the other.
For example, when stressed the baby cries. When the baby cries, the adult becomes stressed. The parent then tends to the baby, removing the source of the stress if possible (feeding, changing nappy, changing position, and so on). But crucially the parent will also soothe the baby, rocking, patting or stroking, making soothing sounds.
When the adult soothes the baby the most important thing that happens is that the adult’s own state of stress reduces. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and muscle tone all return to a calm state, and the attuned baby physically follows suit. This baby is gaining a pattern in the brain linking together soothing activity and physical relaxation, which is the basis of stress regulation for life.
Physical attunement quickly begins to have an impact on other aspects of brain development, especially the right brain which controls emotions and social interaction.
Babies are not aware of feelings, they just feel. When the parent shares the feeling and reflects it back to the baby, only then does the baby become aware of having a feeling. So emotional attunement quickly follows physical attunement.
Most human females cradle their infants on the left side of the body. This tendency is independent of handedness, and is widespread in all cultures. It means that the baby has maximum exposure to the maternal heartbeat. It may also allow enhanced affective communication from the baby via the left eye and ear to the right brain of the mother, producing direct right-brain to right-brain communication.
Parental gaze and emotional attunement
Eye contact is a stimulant, and babies right from birth will be looking for eye contact. When their parents gaze at them the baby knows that they are safely being claimed. Soon this hunger for eye contact turns into interest in what faces do. And one vital thing faces do is to express feelings.
Just as the baby imitates the movements of the parents in establishing physical attunement, they imitate the facial expressions of the parent in establishing emotional attunement. The slower pace of the baby brain means that parents need to wait patiently for this imitation to occur.
So the parent imitates and exaggerates the expressions on the face of the baby, and the baby, by in turn imitating the expression of the parent, comes to grasp their own emotional experience.
These interactions also reinforce behaviours in the baby such as smiling and making sounds, which vastly increase the ways in which the baby can communicate. The baby begins to move from aversive attachment behaviours such as crying (which engage the parents in order to get the baby to stop it) to attractive attachment behaviours such as smiling (which engage the parent because the behaviour gives pleasure).