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Big question: Why should you keep on rocking your baby?

By Dr. Amy Vaughn Van Hecke, assistant professor, Department of Psychology

How many of us have experienced the following scenario: someone hands you a small baby, and, once that baby is on your arms, your body involuntarily starts swaying from side to side?

Why does this happen? As it turns out, this very natural behavior supports one very important aspect of an infant’s development: The development of their brain.

Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, and much of brain development consists of these neurons “wiring up” and connecting to each other. As this process continues, development also entails getting rid of inefficient connections and strengthening efficient ones. Although babies’ brains are not quite as disorganized as the Zoo Interchange, they are definitely a work in progress. The environment and how a baby can make sense of it, then, are very important determinants of how that brain develops.

Babies begin to develop their senses very early, in utero. The sense of movement, or neural vestibular system, is one of the earliest developing. At 14 weeks gestation, fetuses are performing somersaults, kicks, and balletic moves in the mother’s amniotic fluid, even if mom cannot feel any of these movements just yet. They also learn from these self-initiated movements. Mom’s movements are important, too: The motion of mom’s walking, shifting, dancing and even running are transferred to the fetal not-so-sacred space.

So it really should be no surprise that movements, similar to what were experienced in utero, are soothing once ex-utero. These movements also serve as familiar, safe stimulation for the developing brain.

Research has shown that babies who are held and rocked show better growth, faster brain development, better regulation of breathing and heartbeat, more coordinated movements, less crying, and better sleep patterns. Premature babies who are held and rocked are discharged earlier from the hospital. It also doesn’t hurt that, when you are holding an awake newborn in your arms and rocking, their range of vision is such that they can just about see your face 8 or so inches away and not much else. And babies are attracted to and learn an incredible amount from faces. But that’s another topic.

As a child, I reportedly rocked with my mother until I was too big to fit in the rocker anymore (at around an astonishing 9 years old).  Thanks, mom.


Comment by Deborah Unangst at Feb 25 2013 05:43 pm
I was in a pharmacy a couple weeks ago and the dad was trying to get things straight with the clerk and his baby was crying and being fussy. The "Gramma" in me took over and I started talking in a sweet positive voice to her. I was smiling and empathizing with her and she broke into the biggest smile and actually laughed! Seeing her smile made me feel so smug! My father always loved babies and this was his technique! I have always believed babies who are in their first year need cooing and smiling. It always(well almost always) brings them around. Singing and rocking is soothing. Those eyes looking over the shoulder too beautiful for words.
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