Suppose I told you there was something that could help your baby develop a stronger bond with you; a heightened capacity for learning; a natural sense of order and discipline; a calmer disposition; more dependable rhythms of sleeping, eating, and playing; and an increased enjoyment of life. Well, there is, and I'd just love to sell it to you for a few thousand dollars -- except, unfortunately for me, this wonder item happens to be free, unlimited, and instantly accessible to every parent. I'm talking about something that has almost disappeared from modern life: the power of ritual.
Many people think of ritual only as religious ceremony or perhaps the repetitive compulsions of folks who aren't quite all there. It's a shame that it gets such a bad rap because the reality is that it's an important part of every person's life. This is especially true of young ones whose lives are just beginning. My mother, who had eight children, once told me, "My babies always seemed most pleased with their lives when I was most bored with mine." This was her wry way of saying that babies thrive on predictability and consistency rather than on novelty and adventure. This isn't surprising when you consider that they are confronted with a constant blizzard of unprecedented experiences -- not an easy situation, even for an adult. In the midst of all this confusion, positive rituals can become a powerful stabilizing, comforting, and bonding force for your baby -- and for you.
The Power of Ritual
When I suggest that you add more ritual to your parenting style, I don't mean you should wear costumes, chant in dead languages, or perform weird gestures while Junior looks on from the bassinet. A ritual isn't something your neighbors might report to Child Welfare Services; it's just an action you perform in a consistent, reliable way. To create one, simply use meaningful words, objects, or behaviors over and over again. A ritual can be as elaborate as the eight-day ceremony of Hanukkah or as simple as the words "once upon a time." All that matters is repetition and meaning.
Most parents do unconsciously adopt small rituals as they care for their babies -- for example, feeding, burping, and changing diapers the same way, time after time. A familiar routine of holding, rocking, and patting can be the earliest form of communication, a private code you share with your baby from birth. Such rituals teach your little one that at least some things in this unpredictable world can be relied upon to happen consistently, establishing a sense of trust that is the foundation of healthy psychological development.
Beyond this basic ability to calm and comfort, rituals can put your baby in the mood for eating, playing, sleeping, socializing, or learning. Like Pavlov's dogs, humans tend to salivate when we notice something associated with food, yawn when we hear monotonous sounds, and get excited when environmental cues signal playtime. Instigating regular patterns of action around different activities can put you and your child on the same wavelength.
For example, my friend Karen, whose husband is from India, adopted the traditional Indian ritual of massaging her babies. I was visiting Karen and her 3-month-old son, Nikhil, one day when massage time rolled around. Karen pulled a special blanket and a small vial of almond oil from her baby bag, arranged them in a warm place, and put Nikhil, tummy down, on the blanket. He began cooing, smiling, kicking, and gurgling in thrilled anticipation, and then went happily limp while Karen gently massaged him from the top of his head to the tips of his fingers and toes. There was no question that this ritual delighted both mother and child and that the bond between them was strengthened every time it was performed.
Because of its power to regulate activity and expectations, ritual not only stabilizes your baby's life but helps Mom and Dad manage the exhausting routine of early parenthood. My three children were born while I was working on my Ph.D., and I would never have graduated if another mom hadn't advised me to establish an ironclad bedtime ritual. "Do the same things at the same time every night, no exceptions," she said. "Bath, book, bottle, bed. Like clockwork." This system calmed my children and saved my sanity during those busy years -- a decade and a half later, a modified version of our bedtime ritual is still an intimate and comforting connection we share.
You will find that it's easy to develop rituals that are uniquely suited to you and your child. The rule here, as in so much of child rearing, is "Go where love takes you." This means not only the love between you and your baby but the love each of you has for certain experiences.
Before my children were born, I had a lot of preconceptions about the wonderful rituals we would share. I pictured us cooking together in a warm, fragrant kitchen, sharing stories from Shakespeare, and doing amateur science experiments in the backyard. Of course, I failed to consider the fact that I hate to cook, the possibility that my toddlers would prefer Barney to Hamlet, or the cruel truth that children like to conduct their own scientific experiments, most of which involve flushing valuable items down the toilet. In order to get the full benefit of parenting rituals, I had to figure out which ones would appeal to my family.
This process begins with careful observation. Watch and see which behaviors your children choose on their own -- you'll find that even tiny newborns have their preferences. My oldest daughter, Katie, was still in the hospital when she began a ritual of gripping and releasing each of my fingers in turn as I rocked her to sleep. I thought all babies did this, so I was surprised when my second child, Adam, didn't seem interested in my fingers at all. His favorite ritual was to stroke and hold strands of my hair. Letting your baby teach you what he or she likes best is a lovely way to form a mutual understanding from the moment the two of you first make each other's acquaintance.
On the other hand, you should feel free to introduce your baby to the activities you enjoy most. I love singing lullabies, but listening to real musicians, in a variety of styles, is something I enjoy even more. When my babies were little, I'd treat us all to "musical adventures," strapping them into their car seats and driving through the countryside while we listened to my favorite CDs. The motion lulled the kids, we all got to appreciate the scenery, and my children learned to love music as much as I do. I later read that some experts say that hearing music at an early age helps children develop cognitive skills and a good ear, which made me feel downright virtuous about a ritual I'd begun simply to please myself. If both you and your child enjoy a certain routine treat, it may end up yielding benefits that last for the rest of your lives.
A Few Guidelines
As you develop and institute your own parenting rituals, you'll learn what works and what doesn't. Here are some hints that might make the process smoother and more enjoyable for both you and your baby.
1. Keep it simple. Children don't need fancy frills or elaborate events to make them happy and secure. In fact, if Mom or Dad gets too involved in a complicated tradition, such as hiring a clown for every birthday party, both children and parents may end up feeling overwhelmed. The best rituals feel so natural that you don't mind doing them even when you're tired or busy.
2. Make it special. My friend Keith has a genius for making his parenting rituals feel special. "You and I are going to look at our picture now," he'll tell his baby daughter, Becca, carrying her into the living room, where they can gaze at a favorite painting. He'll hold Becca up to the picture and point out the house, the field, the sky, the horse, and the tree. Even though she sees the painting every day, her father's undivided attention and the way he puts special emphasis on sharing "their" picture delights Becca every time.
3. Make it fun. The repetitive nature of ritual gives it tremendous power to teach and calm, but it can also -- let's face it -- get really boring. If your baby seems irritable or unresponsive when you're going through a favorite ritual, it may be time to exchange that routine for something new. By the same token, if you really can't stand one more repetition of "peekaboo," don't force yourself to continue. A good parenting ritual is fun for your child and you.
4. Let it flow. One of the magical things about ritual is that by helping your baby feel safe and grounded, it paradoxically fosters the urge to explore and innovate. Let your rituals evolve as your baby -- and you -- mature. Be responsive to the emotional and intellectual impulses that emerge to elaborate on your shared routines.
The most wonderful thing I've discovered about parenting rituals is that if they're allowed to change, they don't have to end. Every night when I sit down on Katie's bed to discuss the novel she's reading, I fall into the comfortable book-and-bed ritual we've practiced for 14 years. And as I drive my younger daughter, Elizabeth, to her flute lessons, listening to a favorite CD, we put one more link on a 10-year chain of "musical adventures."
Although these rituals aren't religious, they are sacred to me. More than special moments or huge celebrations, they are the conduits through which love and communication flow between me and my children, turning my everyday life as a parent into a quiet celebration. For such a small investment, ritual has an incredible payoff. So go ahead, start your own celebration. Establish rituals that you and your children love, and you may begin a tradition that will last until your babies are having babies of their own.
Martha Beck is a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine and the author of The Joy Diet: 10 Practices for a Happier Life. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.