Conversational Touch

The “ultimate magic of attachment is touch.”  
– Daniel Stern, Diary of a Baby

Babies develop their sense of self through the felt-sense (physical and emotional) of their interactions with us. When we pick up a baby, change their diaper, or playfully interact through touch and movement, that baby is gaining an understanding of their body in movement. 

Our minds may be on more mundane issues while changing a diaper, but a baby is sensing their body moved smoothly or jerkily, with ease or excess force, and sensing what happens if they resist or allow the movement. We need not be aware of this at every moment, but if we understand that our babies’ developing sense of movement, and indeed, sense of self, are influenced by our touch, we can shift our awareness of our interactions enough of the time to support a rich learning process for them. 

Predictive Conversation and Conversational Touch

A study of infant language development pointed to the value of parents making “sensitive” responses to babies’ babbling. Researchers observed increased communicative ability in infants whose parent didn’t just imitate a sound being made, but rather modeled the words that their babies’ “sounds approximated and expanding on it (e.g., if the infant uttered “da-da-da,” the mother would say “Da-da is working. I am ma-ma”).” *

In the We Grow Together program, we explore a way of interacting through touch which correlates to the “sensitive” predictive conversation observed in this study. Parents learn to bond with their baby through “conversational touch”—hands-on interaction that sensitively mirrors and playfully expands upon a baby’s movements.  

As a baby makes movements toward rolling, we can explore the movement with them. We don’t correct, and we don’t show the ‘right way’.  Instead, we explore many options together. We can take hold of their leg and slowly sweep it across their body to try a multitude of different trajectories, noticing the possibilities together. Which directions seem more helpful towards rolling over, which may work better for rolling only to baby’s side, which seem suited more for kicking, or other functions. Like the mother who echoes “da da” and then begins an expanded verbal conversation, we mirror an initial movement and then use touch and movement to suggest and ask about alternative or more elaborate movements.  

Outcomes: Beyond Equifinality

Equifinality means that for typically developing babies, they will likely crawl, walk, and talk at their own pace — but they all reach similar abilities in the end. So why practice this approach when they’ll probably be fine without it?

Through conversational touch, the baby has the opportunity to develop a richer repertoire of movement. Often when a skill is learned, a baby’s attempts at exploration decrease, and with less experimenting comes less refinement of the skill (Why explore and experiment when we can reach well enough to get the toy we want?!). But with conversational touch and We Grow Together classes, parents can invite their babies to keep the avenues of exploration open, and feel closer to each other in the process.

There are psychological and social benefits as well. Through these mindful exploratory movements together, parent and baby can bond more closely. They feel they are “in it together,” just as a parent and older child might feel when enjoying playing a game together. Parents in the We Grow Together program often realize they’ve made a profound shift from entertaining their baby to interacting. Some parents who feel distant and might have otherwise said they are “waiting for the baby to be older and able to play” realize that there’s a way to bond playfully and meaningfully through physical movement from the earliest days of their baby’s life.   

* Article:  Pretending to Understand What Babies Say Can Make Them Smarter

Research and Development!

Tummy Time, Reaching and Rolling

I’m very excited to share news of the research study of my classes, conducted by Dr. Carolyn Palmer, PhD., Developmental Psychologist at Vassar College! Our recently published article in the Infant Mental Health Journal is titled “Moving Into Tummy-Time, Together: Touch and Transitions Aid Parent Confidence and Infant Development.” In it, Dr. Carolyn Palmer, Barbara Leverone and I share our findings — that attending my classes led to improved tummy-time, fostered a more varied repertoire of movement, and pointed toward shifts in parent confidence as well. Here is the link to the abstract. More info to come! https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/imhj.21771

Please Read First:

We Grow Together offers two class sections for different ages and stages. The age ranges overlap somewhat because babies develop at different rates. The descriptions below will help you decide which class might be a better fit but don’t worry – you can’t really go wrong because each class is uniquely shaped by the needs and concerns of each parent and baby who attend it. Lastly, since the program is customized to each group, parents often repeat the same section multiple times and learn new ideas as their baby develops. 


Confounding Baby Behavior!

Have you found yourself wondering why your baby does certain confounding things?  Wouldn’t you love to know what your baby is thinking?  For instance, after you give your baby a break from tummy time, does your baby instantly roll right back to their tummy even though they are exhausted from that position?  A classic baby experiment may give you a new understanding about your baby’s thought process.

In the video linked below, a mom shows her 8m old baby a toy and hides it under one of two handkerchiefs.  The baby reaches for the correct handkerchief and finds his toy.  Next, the mom clearly shows him that she has moved the toy under the second handkerchief.  Even though the baby clearly sees this, he still reaches for where the toy was the first time!  Why would he do this even though he saw where it was moved to?

This experiment is referred to as the “A not B error.”  The baby reaches for handkerchief A even though he sees that the toy is under B.  It’s a phenomenon that only lasts a few months, around ages 8 – 9 months of age.  It seems like a strange error to make, since the baby clearly sees the toy moving.  Piaget, believed that this error was due to a lack of the concept of “object permanence.”  More recently, development researchers have new, and intriguing ideas of what might be happening here.

“In human development, every neural event, every reach, every smile and every social encounter sets the stage for the next and the real-time causal force behind change,” wrote the late Esther Thelen, Developmental Psychologist and Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner.  What we may very well be seeing is the interconnectedness of a baby’s body and mind.  While the baby’s visual sense takes in the view of the toy in a new location, he has just organized his body to reach successfully under the “A” handkerchief.  The motor planning of that previous reach is a neural event that “sets the stage for the next” movement.  In a few months this baby will be able to feel that readiness to reach to A, but be able to override that motor-planning history and reach for the correct handkerchief.  But for now, the previous act of having planned the reach to “A” is so powerful, that the baby reaches to the wrong place to find the toy.

Similarly the baby who has recently learned to roll over, seems drawn as if magnetically to roll over even when they are very tired of being on their tummy!   That new movement of rolling, becomes so “attractive” that they roll even when they seemingly don’t want to do it.  After a time, the baby will begin to find other movements or “attractor states” to use Dr. Thelen’s language, and the “magnetism” of rolling over will fade.

While we can never really know what your baby’s experience is, it can be helpful to understand that your baby’s thinking (and emotional life for that matter) is inseparable from his bodily sensations.  Because your touch is so much a part of his sensation of his body, it means that you too are an inseparable part of this equation.

photo: © Oksana Kuzmina/fotolia

See “Cogsci-mom” demonstrate A not B error with her baby – even with see-thru cups!

“I learned many ways to engage with my baby”

Dan’s class was fun and educational!  Just as important, it got me out of the house during a vulnerable time when I was unsure of myself and inclined to stay home.  As a first-time mom, I had read a lot about pregnancy and childbirth but wasn’t sure how to interact with my baby during his early stages of development.  Dan’s classes energized me as I met and observed other new parents and learned many ways to engage with my baby through movement and songs that I really do enjoy singing.  Often my son was crabby, slept, or nursed during our scheduled class time, but I always brought the things I learned home for when he was awake and ready to play.  It was great for both of us!

“I was actually pretty amazed by how secure it made me feel”

We took the pre-crawlers class with Micaiah when he was about 10 weeks old. It was really really excellent. I knew there were things I should be encouraging him to do, and also knew there was probably a type of way I should be encouraging him, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t stressing him out or moving him in ways that weren’t helpful (or, contrary to natural body movement).

The class is short (45 minutes) to sustain his attention (and mine), got to meet some other great moms, and it really helped build my confidence to encourage his natural movement (and know when he needed a push in a certain direction). I was actually pretty amazed by how secure it made me feel at the end in terms of where he was developmentally and where we were headed in the future.