In American society, the prevailing notion is that infants should sleep alone, so they learn to fall asleep on their own and don’t get too “dependent” on their parents. But, Meredith Small points out, in all parts of the world besides North America and Europe, infants sleep with their parents (co-sleeping). In Small’s book, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, she draws on biological evidence to show that infant bodies need adult bodies. Indeed, infant biology illuminates a deeper theological fact – we all need other bodies in order to be at home in our own bodies, and in order to be fully human.
An extraordinary thing happens when mothers and babies sleep together, researchers found. Babies take on the mother’s breathing rhythm and move through light and deep sleep levels together. In the lab, when a mother’s brain wave pattern shifts, the baby’s does too. When she moves into a lighter sleep stage, the baby follows. This process, Small writes, is called entrainment. Newborns “are born with neurologically unfinished brains, and they don’t develop the ability to easily navigate types of breathing until they are at least three to four months old.” In other words, newborns learn how to sleep by co-sleeping with their parents. A baby who sleeps alone can gradually manage to navigate the sleep phases on its own, but the process is much easier when an infant can “benefit from the external metronome of parental breathing.”
Infant sleeping isn’t the only aspect of embodied life that involves entrainment. We learn to make facial expressions by watching our conversation partners when their emotions change. We learn to dance by catching the physical energy of others in the room and mimicking the movements of our parents and older siblings. We learn how to be physically close by responding to others’ touch with matching pressure and feeling. My friend Pam, a psychologist and massage therapist, talks about transmission or resonance, where the therapist picks up the emotional energy of the client through bodily contact, or vice versa.
In these and so many other ways, we need other bodies around us in order to learn how to be at home in own bodies. As I heard in a recent sermon, our bodies were made for bonding, for connecting us to other people, particularly to Christ and his body the church. Without the positive presence of other bodies, we get a bit lost, and don’t quite know how to relate in our own bodies. You can see this most starkly in children who either were neglected or physically abused – they move about awkwardly and timidly, hunch their shoulders, and keep their heads low, as if afraid to let it be known that they are bodily present in the room. On the other hand, when children are touched and held often in ways that respect their personhood, they thrive. I’ve heard from a family that co-slept with the last couple of their children that these kids seem much more confident in their bodies than their children who slept alone.
What does this mean for the body of Christ? How can we learn to be more at home in our bodies together, and pass this on to our children? For one, I wish that congregations would make it okay and good to express ourselves with our bodies in worship. Let’s start incorporating dance into our services and making space in the sanctuary where people can move about freely. Also, let’s not be afraid to touch each other. If the grandpa in the wheelchair looks like he needs a hug, give it! He doesn’t bite! Sometimes our strict regard for personal space keeps us from that human connection that can only happen through physical touch. Finally, let’s create spaces where we can process through difficult issues and pray together not just with our minds, but also with our bodies. The workshops I led for my old church are a good starting point.
Our bodies need other bodies – not only for the hugs and warm fuzzies. Christ came in a body and rose from the dead in a body to show us that our bodies matter dearly to this whole enterprise of seeking God’s kingdom and restoring a broken humanity. If we cannot learn to be fully present in our bodies, we cannot be fully human.