How to Respect a Baby Through Positive Touch

How do we optimize a young child’s capacities? RIE offers a way.

Posted Nov 03, 2019

Parents, family members, and childcare workers can empower children by partnering with them in day-to-day life. Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE, pronounced “rye”) educates caregivers to care for young children in ways that empower the child.

In a new book, Respecting Babies: A Guide to Educaring for Parents and Professionals, 2nd Ed., based on developmental sciences and published by Zero to Three, Ruth Anne Hammond describes the RIE philosophy and provides concrete guidance in learning how to follow RIE’s principles at home or in childcare centers.

RIE’s overall goal is to help support children’s “inner drive to learn and to develop their unique capacities as human beings” (p. 1). Overall, RIE provides the scaffolding needed to maximize a child’s lifelong capacities for:

In a recent publication comparing early childcare programs, Angela Kurth and I say, “Generally, RIE tries to provide the type of responsive allomothering found in the EDN [Evolved Developmental Niche], and emphasizes free, uninterrupted play and deep interpersonal connectedness.” In our ancestral caregiving environment, community members helped children meet their needs as fellow beings. Hammond's book shows us how to behave towards children in ways that enhance their development.

Here I focus on Hammond’s chapter on the importance of respectful touch.

Touch Builds Security and Cooperation

Caregivers should be mindful of the way they touch the child. The baby is building a sense of self, self-and-others, and self-in-the-world. These start with touch. Repeated concrete experiences in early life become part of a child’s implicit memories and assumptions about the world.

Gentle, respectful touch translates into a point of view that says “I am a valuable person who has a right to be respected by others. Other people make me feel good; I like them.” Rough, unmindful touch translates to “People can do with me as they please. My body isn’t important. I need other people, but that doesn’t make me comfortable. I must not deserve careful attention from others.”’ (p. 13)

Courteously respecting the child is foremost. Hammond gives this example of disrespect that adults might understand:

“Imagine you are slicing carrots for the dinner salad and someone comes up behind you, grabs your arm, and—without speaking—drags you to the car to take you out to dinner. As you arrive at the restaurant, your companion notices you are still clutching the knife and reaches to take it out of your hand. Would you give it up gracefully? Would that be a setup for an enjoyable evening?”

What does respectful touch look like? Hammond gives step-by-step instructions for how to pick up or put down a baby in a respectful manner—so as not to interfere “with the baby’s sense of bodily integrity and cohesion” (p. 15). The steps involve attending to what the baby is doing, getting her attention and telling the baby what you would like to do before you do it. Keeping your face close enough so she can stay focused on you helps baby maintain her own sense of “togetherness.” The RIE approach helps the child learn to prepare for movement and overall the feeling that “he participates as a partner with others” (p. 14).

The RIE approach respects the needs of the baby in such a way as to keep their holistic sense of self. The practices keep baby in a calm state, important for proper development when millions of synapses are scheduled to grow every minute.

Ideally, care routines like baths, transitions to new activities like travel in the car, follow these guidelines:

  • The infant is in a quiet-alert state.
  • The adult speaks to the infant quietly about what is happening and waits for a response.
  • The adult is able to give the infant full attention.
  • The adult has present all of the needed equipment.
  • The adult does not feel rushed.
  • The adult has acquired some skill in how to handle a freely moving baby.
  • The adult sees the relationship as more important than the task.

The adult should take a few deep breaths before interrupting a child, assess the child’s state and then work with the child as a partner. If the child is not interested in doing what the adult expects, the respectful adult will say something like: “I know you are enjoying playing there, but we need to get in the car now. Would you like to walk with me to the door or should I carry you?” Hammond writes that this kind of approach is much better than one that demands and judges the child, such as:

“Get over here right now! Why do you always have to be so uncooperative? Why can’t you be a good girl?” or just unceremoniously picking her up and carrying her off, screaming …” (p. 25). When a child does not comply, the adult can say something like: “I guess you can’t choose right now, so I’ll choose for you. I’m going to pick you up now” [this] conveys respect to the child without abandoning authority or responsibility on the adult’s part.” (ibid)

Positive touch is fundamental for healthy development generally. When it is provided with respect, it is part of responsive care, one of the most well-studied aspects of good parenting that leads to positive child outcomes like cooperation and conscience (e.g., Kochanska, 2002).

References

Hammond, Ruth Anne (2019). Respecting babies: A guide to educaring® for parents and professionals, 2nd ed.. Washington, D.C.: Zero to Three.

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195.

Kurth, Angela, & Narvaez, Darcia (2018). The evolved developmental niche and children’s developing morality. In J. Delafield-Butt, A-W. Dunlop & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), The Child’s Curriculum: Working with the natural values of young children (pp. 104-125). Oxford: Oxford University Press.