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Turn Off Your Distractions and Turn On Your Baby's Future

(This article was originally published on Huffpost Healthy Living on June 15, 2011)

By Lisa Rafel, Gary Malkin, & David Surrenda, Ph.D.

The miracle has finally happened. After nine months of excitement, preparation, classes, endless looking for baby paraphernalia, worry, fear and an explosion of emotion, amazingly, your baby is suddenly in your arms, more innocent, precious and beautiful than you could have imagined.

You've survived the drama of birth, and gratefully, you've bypassed all the potential nightmares that could have happened. Everyone seems to be fine, with all body parts intact. All you have to do is show up, right? Sure, there's going to be that nursing and feeding thing and the changing diapers thing. Hopefully, you'll get some sleep so that you can balance life and deal with the challenges as they present themselves. Piece of cake, right?

For millennia, humans have been hardwired to provide newborns their birthright: to be loved, fed, cared for and given the opportunity to bond with their parents or guardians so that they can grow up to become emotionally resilient, compassionate and engaged members of communities and the world.

Some indigenous cultures value the sacredness of their newborns so completely that they will not let the children touch the ground or leave the arms of elders until they are at least one year old. Other cultures sing a special song when the children are in utero, imprinting the child with that song upon birth. Whenever the child demonstrates imbalances or illnesses of any kind, the family members will bring the song forth, ensuring that the heart and spirit of the child will never feel far from that deeply connected, numinous state. Other cultures require the children to be skin to skin with the parents for the first weeks, away from the light of day and the din of everyday life, to make sure that the bond will forever be maintained as an authentic, intimate and steadfast presence.

However, in today's "civilized" cultures, much has changed. In the name of progress, doctors and hospitals pay more attention to pain management and convenience than to the parent-child connection. Our technological advances have given us the double-edged sword of constant connectivity. On the one hand, we place a high value on being available at all times. On the other, there is an endless demand to stay on top of our emails, texts, voicemails, Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, while fulfilling our roles in our jobs and families. Because of these technological "demands," the capacity to be truly present and fully engaged with those we care about -- emotionally, intellectually and spiritually -- is enjoying an all-time low. While most of us have the resilience and patience to put into context why our friends and family members are not really "there" as much as they used to be, it's a bit much to expect a newborn baby to understand that vacant stare in the distracted parent's eyes when the baby is looking for complete, unconditional love.

Let's face it. When a baby is days, weeks and months old, it can become extraordinarily inconvenient to be constantly needed for hands-on care and heartfelt attention. Yet this is exactly what babies need for a fulfilling, successful and emotionally satisfying life.

Babies are emotional, physiological and spiritual sponges. They're designed to soak up every nuance they encounter. This sensitivity to our words, actions and emotions starts much sooner than had previously been thought by experts in the field. New research has demonstrated that the development of the fetus is affected by the emotional state of the mother as well as the family system surrounding her.

Most people don't know that a baby is able to hear as early as 24 weeks in utero, with fully developed ears by four and a half months. Transmitted through tissues, bones and fluids, the parents' voices become one of the key ways through which a baby recognizes her parents. The baby's nervous system is responding to inflections and tones that are conveyed through words, intentions and sounds. For example, research has shown that the baby responds when a parent speaks to her in a loving voice.

Much has been written about the dramatic transition that occurs for the baby during the birth process. Everyone agrees that a baby is highly sensitive to external stimulation once she leaves the peacefulness of the womb and enters this world. In those first moments, though her eyes cannot see clearly, she can hear and recognize her parents' voices, even with all the bright lights and sounds happening around her.

This precious time after birth provides remarkable opportunities for nurturing. This is important because a newborn's brain starts soaking up stimuli at an astonishing rate. From the moment of birth, a baby has one billion neurons that immediately begin forming up to 15,000 separate connections. This means that a baby has more synaptic connections than all the stars in the universe! A parent who can thoughtfully manage this process -- often by simply being aware of it -- sets the desired environmental tone for the baby. This awareness has a marked influence on how the baby grows and learns.

Pregnancy and birth are a perfect time to appreciate the power of music and what a profound impact it can have on the baby as well as the parents. Using music to deliberately create a supportive emotional environment can be an important part of becoming a mindful parent. Like stories, music can emotionally transport us to places deep within our imagination. When we allow music to touch our hearts, we can feel refreshed and renewed. Music can soothe us, inspire us and, most importantly of all, awaken us into the present moment.

To truly be in the "present" with your baby is often challenging amidst the endless juggling. Simultaneously doing many things at once can inadvertently undermine the sense of well-being in the parents, which will directly impact the baby. Imagine how those little ones must feel when we permit ourselves to be chronically distracted, overly tired and reactive. When we deprive ourselves of the rest and quiet we need to function optimally, we cannot effectively give our children the love we feel for them.

Music has the remarkable power to provide a sanctuary in times of challenge. It can serve as a catalyst to align our deepest selves and bring forth an emotional state that's compatible with the nurturing environment the baby needs. Music can open our hearts, causing us to experience feelings that might be left unfelt. It can anchor our emotions so that we can remember and affirm all that we love. When we are in touch with these feelings, music can support the essential bonding process.

Bonding is the ground of human experience, where the baby discovers and explores what it means to relate. The first thing every human being experiences is connection. If this connection evolves, as it should, it becomes as natural as breathing. If this connection isn't properly formed, it can feel like being lost in space, without directions to guide you. Bonding forms a foundation of trust through which we come to know the world.

If you want your child to feel secure and resilient as she faces the astonishing array of ups and downs that comprise a human life, she will flourish as a result of feeling loved by parents who are aware of the importance of bonding from the beginning. Ironically, these experiences with our children also give us the nurturing, healing and calming experiences that we need. It helps us to come back to center and remember what matters most to us. It's important to remember that if bonding didn't happen from the beginning, it's never too late to start. Making it a priority to feel connected and loving with your children can happen at any time.

Parenting is not about being perfect. Often, it is about remembering to feel the genuine awe for this being you have brought into this world. When we do, we empower our children to be compassionate and present. It begins with those quiet, intimate moments with our precious newborns. If we truly knew the stakes that were involved, would that urgent text or email seems as life-shattering if we didn't answer it at that very moment?

For thousands of years, the universality of the lullaby has affirmed the connecting power of using music for bonding. Turning off the distractions to sing, play music and feel gratitude for this miracle of life creates a bond between you that will last for the rest of your lives.

Lisa Rafel, Gary Malkin and David Surrenda, Ph.D. are the authors of the new book and CD set "Safe in the Arms of Love: Deepening the Essential Bond with Your Baby" (2011, Wise Parenting Press).

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