While studying and working in a small orphanage in India in 1973, I made a discovery that was to substantially redirect my life.

I became aware of the importance of traditional Indian baby massage, both for its soothing effects and for its role in affectionate nonverbal communication. An Indian mother regularly massages everyone in her family and passes these techniques on to her daughters. At the orphanage, the eldest massaged the little ones nearly every day. It was a type of nurturing I hadn’t seen in the United States. I received its benefits when, during my last week in India, I succumbed to malaria. When I was delirious with fever, all the women in the neighborhood came to look after me. They massaged my body with practiced hands as if I were a baby, and they sang to me, taking turns until my fever broke. I will never forget the feeling of their hands and hearts touching me.

On my way to the train station after a tearful goodbye at the orphanage, my rickshaw stopped to let a buffalo cart go by. To my right was a shanty — just a few boards and some canvas — where a family lived by the road. A young mother sat in the dirt with her baby across her knees, lovingly massaging him and singing. As I watched her, I thought, There is so much more to life than material wealth. She had so little, yet she could offer her baby this beautiful gift of love and security, a gift that would help to make him a compassionate human being.

I thought about all the children I had known in India, and how loving, warm, and playful they were in spite of their so-called disadvantages. They took care of one another, and they accepted responsibility without reservation. Perhaps, I thought, they are able to be so loving, so relaxed and natural because they have been loved like this as infants, and infants have been loved this way in India for thousands of years. Massage, perhaps, makes them at home in their world, not enemies or conquerors of it. It welcomes them to the warmth and love that is here for them, allowing them to retain the gentle spirit that comes clothed in a new, still unformed and fragile body. And it helps that body adjust to the stimulation of a world full of noises, lights, movement, sharpness, and clamor with curiosity, not fear. Later I learned from many mothers and grandmothers this ancient art of heart and hands that so clearly impacts the bodies, minds, and spirits of the people who receive it.

Infant massage is not a fad. It is an ancient art that connects you deeply with the person who is your baby, and it helps you to understand your baby’s particular nonverbal language and respond with love and respectful listening. It empowers you as a parent, for it gives you the means by which you become an expert on your own child and therefore can respond according to your baby’s unique needs. Rather than growing up selfish and demanding (though all kids go through such stages), a child whose voice is heard, whose heart is full, and who is enveloped in love overflows with that love and naturally, unselfconsciously gives of himself to others. She learns what healthy, respectful touch is by being touched that way. He learns self-discipline by watching his parents and imitating them. The deep emotional bonds formed in infancy lay a foundation for a lifetime of trust, courage, dependability, faith, and love.