The relationship between infant mental health and maternal mental health is so closely linked. The mother and baby share so much space and time together. I believe the mood and feelings of each directly affect the other and are also influenced on a physical level by the type of birth both have experienced and the presence of oxytocin which is the love, social and mothering hormone.
Over the years as an baby massage and yoga instructor, I have seen many mother and baby dynamics and how they feed into each other. I often talk about the mother and baby interaction as the love loop which deepens bonding and connection through the reading and understanding of subtle communication and the connecting and powerful effects of touch. I have helped and supported mothers fall in love with their babies (and themselves) through teaching baby massage. Baby massage helps to build and create trust in a mother’s own instincts and her ability to know what her baby wants and in her ablity to make her baby to feel safe and protected in the world. A mother’s touch, arms and physical presence is a soothing balm to the baby’s skin and to the baby’s nervous system. Babies literally FEEL everything. It’s their most developed sense at birth and how they navigate the world. Touch helps them regulate their emotions and build their brains.
Working with mothers who have experienced a difficult birth or PTSD can be challenging if you have not had full training on the complexity of how a mother might feel but what we do know is that oxytocin is a great healer for both mother and baby. Bonding can be more difficult as a result of a traumatic birth. Penelope Leach is a Director and Trustee of AIMH (UK) comments that;
“Because the baby is a reminder of the traumatic event, the mother is confronted with a double bind regarding typical avoidance behaviours of traumatised individuals. She is expected to embrace her new infant and instead she is being psycho-physiologically triggered by him or her. This can disturb the bonding process from the mother’s perspective, and create attachment problems as the baby is seeking positive interactions with its mother that are not forthcoming during this critical period. Traumatised mothers are not able to attune to their infants, or respond to cues, and fail to comfort and reassure them, making their emotional withdrawal a profound and long-lasting effect.”
What we can do as baby massage instructors is provide a nurturing and supportive environment for a mother to see how it feels to connect more deeply with her baby. It maybe difficult and painful at first to sit with the pain,anxiety and fear but through supported one to one work, it is possible to harness the power of oxytocin to help the mother feel at least a little more chemically and physically connected even if there are still blocks to release and surrender to. Baby massage classes help to provide an environment where mothers can start to attune to their babies and notice the subtle cues that make them feel more able to respond. It might be a long process but in our busy world, practising baby massage helps to slow down time and focus on this crucial and defining relationship.
And what about babies?
I think it is also important to note that a baby may also be deeply affected by a traumatic birth and possible lack of connection with it’s mother. Babies need eye contact, physical touch and skin to skin to help them start to trust the world and to feel safe. Babies need their parents to help them navigate and understand the world. Without this it is confusing and overwhelming, activating a babies fear state with consequences for sleeping and eating patterns and if repeatedly experienced, their brain development. Babies need to feel attached, loved and accepted and in the case of a traumatic birth this is even more of the case. The baby may too suffer from the aftermath of stress during the birth process and be sensitive to his environment, touch or interaction. This in turn may make a mother feel she is doing something “wrong” and create a cycle of mis communication and detachment rather than nurture and love.
I think any baby massage instructor working with women who have suffered from a traumatic birth would benefit from learning more about how to support them and equally that learning to teach baby massage and nurturing touch is a practical tool that helps mothers connect directly from the heart rather than the head and which can help practically activate bonding rather than thinking about it or willing it to happen.
I have seen the power of oxytocin through touch and it is a great healer. Bonding is so important and can start at any time. It’s never too late to learn and put it into practice with nurturing touch.
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