Throughout the pandemic, news reports and magazine articles have encouraged us to think deeply about developing mental health practices that sustain our children and ourselves. This is especially important for infants, whose spiritual well-being, as well as physical, mental, and emotional health, is negatively affected by toxic stress.
Researcher Claire Vallotton and her team have found that observant caregivers who try to understand the stress an infant is experiencing are essential to healthy development. They recommend three practices to help very young children process their emotions: gentle touch, shared action, and close calming. These practices also nurture infant spirituality.
A gentle and respectful touch communicates sympathy for the infant’s emotions. It also conveys the caregiver’s awareness of the physical sensations of stress and offers assistance in relaxing the body. The child experiences how feelings of stress and bodily tension or pain are reduced or alleviated through loving touch. They learn that their body and feelings matter and that others will honor and care for them even when they are in distress. Calming touch affirms infant embodiment and self-worth, which are essential components of a healthy spiritual identity.
Shared action, in which caregivers use ‘we’ language while doing activities with their infant, promotes interrelatedness. Vallotton calls this practice ‘togetherness talk’. The goal is to help an infant experience interpersonal connection and recognize the power of working together when stressed. It communicates a deep sense of interconnectedness fundamental to a thriving spiritual life. It is also a place to engage very young children in the movements and language of specific spiritual practices, with the caregiver saying sacred words and helping the child make spiritual gestures.
Close one-on-one interaction with a distressed child offers comfort and care until they are again calm. A ‘time in’ practice pulls an infant closer, as opposed to time-out practices, which rely on separation to manage behavior. It tells an infant that their needs will not be ignored or set aside; instead, others will respond with love and compassion. It models how best to respond to others in need, reinforcing infants’ nascent empathy and providing behavior to imitate.
We often forget that even infants can practice spirituality in meaningful ways. Introducing them to calming touch, engaging in ‘togetherness talk’, and having ‘time in’ sessions are three ways we can spiritually engage little ones and support socio-emotional learning as well.