“Because dancing with a baby is so instinctive, compelling, and carefree, we likely aren’t aware of its importance,” writes Sue Doherty in her new book, Dancing With Your Baby: The Science of Nurturing Infant and Caregiver through Music and Movement.
Throughout the book, Doherty explores the ways in which dancing can enhance children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, while also promoting what is perhaps the most vital ingredient of child development – the connection between the parent and the child.
“Dancing with your baby may be the only truly universal expression of play,” writes Doherty.
Moving in sync with another has profound implications. Doherty cites a study that found when 14 month old babies were bounced in sync with a movement partner, they were far more likely to help their partner afterwards.
Rocking and cradling a baby to sleep is also a universal phenomenon, which has been shown to facilitate the transition from waking to sleeping, increasing the length of non-REM sleep and other brain activity vital to sound and deep sleep.
Infants also connect music with social meaning.
“Five month old babies choose to watch unknown people who sing songs originally learned from a parent rather than attend to melodies learned from a toy or stranger singing,” writes Doherty.
The shared spontaneous neural basis of music and language brings people together promoting group cohesion, cooperation, and positive emotions. Music also represents a rule based structure, and, like the understanding and development of language, engages both hemispheres of the brain.
“It’s now understood that action and language processing share a high-level neural integration system,” writes Doherty.
Dance also has the ability to optimize sensory inputs, through synchronization and multisensory stimulation, which can help a child surpass typical learning thresholds.
As a common response to a baby’s environment is to periodically become overwhelmed and distressed, dancing can send a strong, positive, nonverbal message.
“No matter what, dancing and singing boost just about any child’s ability to self-regulate and be socially engaged. You facilitate this when you see your baby as capable of psychological agency motivated by mental states,” writes Doherty.
Doherty points to work done by Dana Shai and Peter Fonagy who refer to this attribute as “mentalizing,” and note its importance in the formation of secure attachment. Perhaps for this reason, music has been found to have profound salubrious effects and has been linked to improved immune response, strengthened emotional bonds, and decreased feelings of distress. Its effect on the brain has even been likened to endorphins.
Music also plays a fundamental role in helping children learn from their environment.
“Infants seek novel stimulation through which new information can be encoded and knowledge updated. This happens in the same brain centers responsible for processing reward and punishment, each with distinct neural circuits,” writes Doherty.
Music also appears to drive motivation to learn, which often occurs through emotional content, stimulus, and feedback. This brain activity has been described as conation by R. Adcock, who heads up the memory lab at Duke University.
Doherty quotes Adcock:
“Conation is the part of mental life having to do with striving, including desire and volition; it intersects with cognition and emotion. Conation is predictive and affective. What we want colors what we learn and remember, which determines what we perceive and understand.”
Music therapy, which has been used for children with special needs, helps children learn to self-regulate and, when done with the caregiver, opens the door toward mutual regulation.
“You will witness your child move toward and away from even positive stimuli, maturing from self-regulation to mutual-regulation – that partnership of give and take you experience together,” writes Doherty.
Mutual-regulation can be of critical importance when maternal depression is present, disrupting the relationship between the caregiver and the child and ultimately the child’s psychological, social, and cognitive development. Here, dancing, or what Doherty often refers to as Kinergetics, offers serious preventative healthcare for both the mother and child.
“Sensitive, quality caregiving behaviors can attenuate an infant’s fearful temperament and affects his social-emotional development,” writes Doherty.
To put the process in motion, Doherty provides numerous exercises caregivers can use to begin dancing with their babies as well as tips on how to hold the baby, proper posture, and even dance steps to start with.
Caregivers, Doherty tells us, serve themselves and their babies best when they share laughter, joy, keen attention, and a grateful heart, as well as the universals of song, dance, music and the rhythmical infant-directed speech.
A unique blend of compelling research and practical and creative methods, Dancing With Your Baby offers parents a wonderful tool to develop deep connectedness with their babies, all while creating an environment conducive to social, emotional and cognitive thriving.
Dancing With Your Baby: The Science of Nurturing Infant and Caregiver through Music and Movement
Eightfold Path Publishing
Softcover, 141 Pages