Lessons from orphanages around the world: babies need interaction

June 20, 2012 by JoLynne Lyon

Vonda JumpCPD Research Scientist Vonda Jump spoke of her experiences and research in orphanages around the world as a presenter in USU’s Sunrise Sessions last week. USU’s research website now has it available on podcast. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Here’s a quick summary:

Dr. Jump said her interest in infant massage began with her own daughter. “When I messaged her I felt like I was more in tune with her body and what was happening with her,” she said.

It later became the subject of her doctoral dissertation. Previous research had established that massage stimulates the Vagus nerve, which is involved in the body’s automatic systems. It also increases circulation and improves parent/child communication. Her dissertation showed that babies’ attachment to parents was more likely to be secure if massage was used.

That work led to her study on the effects of massage on babies in orphanages. After visiting several around the world, Jump said conditions can vary widely. Some have great services, other facilities literally made her cry. But in general, an orphanage is a money-sucking operation, and its workers are likely to be less-educated. Changes in how they operate should be low-cost, because budgets are tight.

In 2002 Dr. Jump went to Ecuador after a student emailed her to say the babies there were not touched much. That student encouraged her to go and teach massage.

On arriving there, Dr. Jump was impressed by how clean the orphanage was. Sheets were changed daily and the floors were mopped twice a day. But the caregivers didn’t talk to the babies much, and the babies’ language skills were delayed.

The study she did there compared the wellness of babies who were massaged to that of babies who were not. The intervention lasted for about two months, and she flipped a coin to decide which babies would be massaged and which would remain as a control group.

“The babies in the massage group were more likely to be well than the babies in the control group.  But … over this thirty-day period, none of the babies were well very often. They were sick the majority of the time.” A lot of that was runny noses, but neither group had many days without any symptoms.

That said, the group that received massage was 34 percent more likely to be well.

A year later Dr. Jump went to Haiti to continue studying the effects of massage.  This visit took her to the poorest country in the western hemisphere. “I was really surprised by what I saw in Haiti,” she said. “The director and his wife were doing such noble work.” But there were no toys, no running water. The babies stayed on mats outside in the open air, with nothing between them and the flies.

She stayed there for one month and again found that children who received the massage therapy were more likely to be well—though again both groups were sick a lot of the time.

In Haiti she especially noticed how the babies responded to social interaction: by avoiding it. They were so unused to getting attention, they tried to get away from it. But at the same time Dr. Jump was in that orphanage, a group from a foundation arrived and began working with the babies. “All of the babies improved,” she said.

She showed two different clips of the same baby. In the earlier one the child turned away from the person who tried to play with her; in the second one she responded with smiles and eye contact. “The fact that she changed so much in such a short period of time was incredible to me,” she said.

cortisol level graphIn Haiti the research also touched on the babies’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress, and babies in that Haitian orphanage had much higher levels of it than family-reared babies. What’s more, it peaked at a different time of day.

The levels indicate that vastly different things are happening in a stressed baby’s brain, Dr. Jump said. But post-test levels followed a pattern more similar to that of family-reared babies.

“Was that a fluke? I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know at all.” The pilot study looked at 11 babies total in both the massage and control group. “I’d love to be able to look at this more, but to look at cortisol research, you have to have a lot of money for that.”

All of her orphanage work involved pilot studies. She hopes to someday do more comprehensive research in an orphanage setting.

Her next orphanage visit was to India, where Jump was involved in teaching caregivers more about interacting with babies. The results surprised her. The caregivers did “more than nod, agree with me and go on their same path,” she said. They took the information and ran with it, interacting with children and encouraging development.

The take-home lesson for people in the United States: Going without interaction is stressful to babies. Dr. Jump encouraged her listeners to learn what babies are communicating and respond. Pick up a crying baby. Talk to babies, stimulate their senses and keep it positive. Massage them. All these things help parents and caregivers engineer a better brain in the child, she said.

Tags: ,