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.   

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