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Pediatric Massage


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Infant Massage: A Bonding Intervention to Reduce Recidivism

"Human bonding does not occur in a single, magical moment in the delivery room – like falling in love, it is an ongoing process that matures over time." - Sharon Heller, PhD, The Vital Touch

Reducing recidivism is a major concern for all jails, prisons and correctional facilities. Recidivism refers to a person's relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person has spent time incarcerated or has gone through an an intervention for a previous crime. Statistics and data collected have shown that prisoners are likely to return to prison within three to five years from their release, or even sooner if certain barriers are not eliminated from their future outside of the bars. For those parenting from behind bars, certain barriers may include connection with their children and family. Many women give birth in the jail or prison system, while some fathers are incarcerated and never witness the birth of their child.

Prior to the 1950s, nurseries for female prisoners who gave birth while jailed were actually quite common. However, in the 1970s, every state prison and jail system except for just one had eliminated these nurseries, which were vital to support the efforts of keeping mother and child together. At that time, the only nursery which remained in continuous operation was found at New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. While at the same time, in the 1970's, we saw a significant increase in the number of women incarcerated.

infant massage - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In one study, the University of Nebraska evaluated the nursery program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women and found that female prisoners who participated in the nursery program received 13% fewer disciplinary cases than those in the general population. In their five-year evaluation, researchers concluded that that women who were immediately separated at birth from their newborn children returned to prison at a rate of 33.3% within just five years after their release. The women who took part in the nursery program had a much lower recidivism rate of just 9%.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), the study conducted there showed fantastic results. Over a five-year period, 118 mothers and their newborns took part in the ORW nursery program. Following these five years, researchers reviewed the data to find that the three-year recidivism rate for women in the program was only 3% compared to an overall rate of 38% for prisoners in general population.

The research supports that, "effective parenting and strong family functioning — with warm effective bonds, high monitoring and consistent discipline — protect against a variety of antisocial and problem behaviors, such as involvement with delinquent peers and subsequent likelihood of gang membership and violence." (NIJ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a partnership to publish a book, Changing Course: Preventing Gang Membership, 2013)

When a baby first arrives, the parent-child bond may begin immediately, or for some it may take some time to "grow on each other." One thing we know for sure is that bonding is essential for a baby and their family. In studies performed by Dr. Harry Harlow, newborn rhesus monkeys show that when given a choice between two surrogate "mothers," one made of terrycloth, the other of wire and had food, overwhelmingly the baby monkeys chose the mother that could provide warmth and comfort. It was found that the young monkeys clung to the terrycloth mother whether it provided them with food or not, and that the young monkeys chose the wire surrogate only when it provided food. They would eat their food and return to the terrycloth mother for comfort.

In other research studies, when baby rhesus monkeys were placed with mannequin mothers at birth, research showed that despite the efforts of the baby monkeys to get a response through holding and touching the mannequins, the lack of a parental response caused sadness, stunted development and failure to thrive in the young monkeys. Scientists suspect that lack of bonding in human babies may cause similar issues and presentation.

In the case of humans, most infants are ready almost immediately to begin establishing a bond with their parents. Parents, on the other hand, may have mixed feelings about it. Many parents feel intense emotions, of love and nurturing, within the first minutes or days after their baby's birth. For others, especially if there are other circumstances, such as the parent and baby are separated shortly after birth, as in the case of many incarcerated parents, this all important bonding may take a bit longer.

Bonding is a process and is not something that takes place within a few moments of time, or is limited to happening within a certain time period after baby's arrival. For many families, bonding happens naturally as the result of everyday care giving. Bonding requires nurturing and time, and it's never too late to enhance or promote these elements of the parent-child relationship. It is quite possible the parent may not even know it is happening until they observe baby's first smile, make eye contact, and suddenly realize they're filled with love for their new baby.

When a parent massages their baby, they are helping to encourage and nurture this bond. Techniques are adapted on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration and medical and emotional needs of the family. Parents are asked to:

  • Ask permission of the infant to not only give the child a cue of what interaction is about to take place, but to show respect for their unique boundaries.
  • Make eye contact and try to understand their child's cues/nonverbal communication.
  • Practice gentle stroking techniques which establish connection through skin-to-skin contact.

Bonding between a parent and baby happens when the parent engages in meaningful interactions with their child, while at the same time respecting the baby's healthy boundaries. The warmth of skin-to-skin contact, recognizing each others smell and responding to the baby's needs, are all key components that help infant massage become a bonding intervention. When we respond appropriately to an infant and add interventions that support the parent-child relationship, we contribute to a lifelong bond of love and trust.

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