Why is it that when blessing infants men always bounce the baby up and down?
If you’ve seen many baby blessings, you know what I mean. The father or whoever will pronounce the blessing holds the infant on its back in his outstretched hands while the rest of those invited to participate circle the child, adding their outstretched hands underneath the baby. Often before the blessing even begins and without regard to whether or not the child has uttered the merest hint of a whimper, the men slowly rock the baby up and down, usually gently.
As a participant in blessings I’ve tried on occasion to stop this rhythmic bouncing, either by letting my hand become a dead weight or even by actively pushing in the opposite direction of the motion, but it continues apace, as if it were as natural as the movement of the waves or the oscillations of tree branches in the wind.
I know that this motion can quiet an infant (at least when the infant is upright), and I suspect that men bounce babies because of that knowledge. Gently bouncing a baby up and down appears to me to be a universal way of quieting infants (of course, I admit that I don’t know how universal this is. I don’t have experience with all, or even most, cultures).
Still, when I hold an infant I don’t bounce it preemptively—I wait for some indication of discomfort or an approaching cry. But in baby blessings the motion seems preemptive, and therefore a little strange. I even wonder, at times, if the bouncing might actually cause the infant to cry when it wouldn’t otherwise!
I do have a couple of theories that might explain this phenomenon. It is possible that this tendency has simply become a cultural norm among Latter-day Saints; something we do because it has always been done that way, and we assume that it helps keep the baby quiet during the blessing. I doubt anyone attaches any theological meaning to it, but I guess you never know what people will think.
My other theory is more physical, and I attribute it to the kind of fatigue you feel when holding a significant weight at arm’s length. The heavier the weight, the harder it is to hold it still and the more likely your hand will oscillate up and down as you try to keep it steady. However, you would think that the bouncing would diminish as the number of participants in the circle increases because the infant’s weight is spread over more arms. Instead, in my experience, the bouncing often seems to get worse!
Of course, this whole phenomenon isn’t important—its just a phenomenon that has become part of Mormon culture. I doubt that infants suffer any temporary harm or inconvenience from either bouncing or not bouncing, and I suspect few people are even troubled much by a little crying during a blessing—its normal. Perhaps the worst impact is on whether or not the blessing can be heard. I don’t think that this is something that should lead to a tempest in a teapot.
But, I do wonder why Mormon culture has this ‘bouncing the baby’ syndrome.
[I welcome your comments on this or any similar non-verbal (for this post) LDS cultural practice, as long as we stay within T&S' comment guidelines. This would be a particularly silly post to be bothered by. Anyone who whines will therefore be taken out into the foyer and gently bounced until they stop crying.]