‘Bouncing the Baby’ syndrome

September 28, 2011 | 42 comments
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Image via LDS Talk

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.

Why?

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.]

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42 Responses to ‘Bouncing the Baby’ syndrome

  1. chris on September 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I provide you with two pieces of evidence:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/nur.4770170503/abstract
    From the abstract:
    “Both pacifiers and rocking reduced crying, but pacifiers predominantly produced sleep states and rocking predominantly produced alert states. ”

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163638381800240
    From the abstract:
    “a rocking component quieted more quickly than those either picked up and held at the experimenter’s shoulder or not given any form of soothing intervention. he type of rocking movement (continuous vs. intermittent) differentially affected the infant’s behavioral state and that these effects were influenced, to some degree, by the direction of the movement.”

    So it’s pretty clear that the priesthood has been inspired to bounce/rock babies, which has the effect of both calming them and keeping them alert so they can pay attention to what school they will go to and whether or not they will go on a mission or just get married in the temple.

  2. Sarah Dunster on September 28, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I think you and I both know the answer. It’s called… nerves. And nervous fidgeting.

    I’m laughing out loud as I’m imagining you, trying to restrain the baby’s bouncing during the blessing.

  3. Tim on September 28, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I noticed this about a month ago, when I blessed my second child. He was fast asleep and quite content, and the bouncing annoyed me, as it was entirely unnecessary (and I really didn’t want him to wake up).

    Of course, I’m the sort who refuses to discuss mission/marriage/school in a baby blessing (I’d rather ask for a blessing for Godly traits than for specific life milestones), so my baby blessing approach is anything but normal.

  4. geoffsn on September 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Next child we have, I’m going to explicitly ask that there be no “baby bouncing.” I’ll return and report. (don’t expect my response for a couple years)

  5. PoNyman on September 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve found that the more people born in the ’40s and ’50s the more bouncing there is of the baby.

  6. Paul on September 28, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I thought it was in the CHI:

    “Take the infant in your arms and bounce it. Address Heavenly Father as in prayer….”

    I suppose we could see if it is a unique activity for LDS by asking a group of non-LDS to bless a baby and see what they do.

  7. Jax on September 28, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I likewise have hated the bouncing at blessings. So after my first child, rather than hold them on their backs in the center of the circle, I held the infant upright next to my body with its head laying on my shoulder. It did several things 1)it meant I got to keep control of my child’s movement and support (there was no way they were going to drop), 2)the child was more likely to remain asleep since this was the position that Mom used to comfort them when crying and it was familiar to them, 3)it meant I HAD to keep the number of participants much smaller than normal since there was no way for 20 people to reach them (I limited it to direct males progenitors).

    Even more annoying to me is the ceremonial hold-the-baby-up-afterward-and-let-the-crowd-admire moment. I just keep holding them and walk back to sit down. One very bothersome bishop stood up and said, “you forgot to show us the baby, please do so now” and waited for me to stand from my seat and do it. So I’ve since requested from my bishops to hold the blessing at my home with my family present and without all the fanfare.

  8. HeidiAnn on September 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    As a mom, I can tell you that I will sometimes find myself swaying when I’m standing around talking to someone at church. I laugh to myself when I notice it. It only happens when I’m holding something like my binder for my calling. Maybe it’s not as conscious an occurence as you might think.

  9. Kaimi on September 28, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    A side effect of church basketball?

  10. Janell on September 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Amusingly, I just noticed in the last blessing done in our ward that the baby /wasn’t/ being bounced, nor was there the holding up of the child (as if to prove, hey, look, see, it was a baby and not a sack of flour.) I wonder if bouncing is part of a ward/regional culture. Or maybe it’s behavior that’s been passed down through generations of fathers and sons, and a ward full of newer converts isn’t likely to bounce babies. I’ll have to pay more attention to the next baby blessing and see if it’s the same.

    Though maybe it had to do with the fact that the baby in question was 4 months old when he received his blessing. Are lighter babies more likely to be bounced than heftier ones?

  11. Michael G on September 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    The picture used lends itself to another question. Should the father/voice use both hands to hold the baby while the remainder use the one hand or should he also use just the one hand? It seems like someone should have a firm grip on the kid (especially with all the bouncing) for my kids I remember specifically being directed to use the just the one hand and wasn’t too super thrilled about it.

  12. Rachel on September 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I’ll have to watch for bouncing the next time a baby is blessed in our ward. I’d never taken notice of this phenomenon before, but then, the last time I was in a baby blessing circle, I was the infant.

  13. Bryan Stiles on September 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I first noticed when I helped bless my nephew. I just thought… hm. And then continued on with the blessing.

    What about the phenomenon of complaining about mormon quirks and traditions that don’t really have a positive or negative consequence? They are just there.

    Oh wait… that’s a verbal practice… :)

  14. Bro. Jones on September 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    When I blessed my daughter last year, she began to get upset right towards the end. I’d felt like I’d said all that needed to be said, so I wrapped it up. As I was shaking hands with my fellow holders of the priesthood, the bishop said, “With your next kid, try bouncing the baby–calms them down.” For what that’s worth.

  15. Eric James Stone on September 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    You say “‘bouncing the baby’ syndrome” like it’s a disease.

    It’s not. It’s perfectly natural. They were born that way — or haven’t you ever heard that a mother gave birth to a “bouncing baby boy” or “bouncing baby girl”?

  16. Paul on September 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    #11 — what a shame you were so directed. The handbook offers no guidance (all participants place their hands under the baby).

    Elder Packer demonstrated in a Worldwide Leadership training years ago how to give a blessing to an adult or ordain or set apart an adult with a larger group (one hand on the head, one on the right shoulder of the next person in the circle). But for a baby blessing, I’d always assume the person giving he blessing would have a firm hold on the baby.

    Elder Packer also stressed that generally we don’t have so many participate that the one-handed method is required.

  17. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on September 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    This relates to one of my funniest church experiences: I was an interpreter for the Deaf in a previous ward. During Elders quorum, the presidency decided to do a training on ordinances that included consecrating oil during the meeting. I was interpreting the consecration and saw one of the Deaf members start to laugh. I glanced over at the circle and they were *bouncing the bottle of oil*. I still crack up every time I think about it.

  18. Kent Larsen on September 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Chris (1), do those studies indicate whether they were bouncing the child up and down? or rocking it from side to side? or both?

    Without clarification, I would assume “rocking” to mean side to side, not up and down like in blessings. Of course, it may not make any difference at all — kind of like this post!

    Jax (7) your experience illustrates one of the most effective ways for passing on irrelevant culture: enforcement by well-meaning local authorities.

    Kaimi (9): LOL!!

  19. Kent Larsen on September 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Bryan (13): OK, I’ll stop complaining about things I’m not really complaining about! [Actually, I probably won't stop. Its too much fun!]

    Eric (15) writes: “You say “‘bouncing the baby’ syndrome” like it’s a disease.”

    Yes I did. Totally for effect — to get people to read the post. Feel free to be annoyed at my cheap attention getter. I even considered titling the post “Shaking the Baby Syndrome” but decided that was going too far. [It kind of reminds me of one candidate for Student Government at BYU when I was there, who posted a picture of someone holding a gun to the head of a dog with the caption: "Vote for me or I'll shoot the dog!"]

  20. Kent Larsen on September 28, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Paul (16), so now I’m wondering what should happen when there are too many people invited for everyone to get a hand on the victim, er, I mean the person being blessed.

    Perhaps someone needs to write a Mormon etiquette blog and address this kind of situation!!

    Christopher (17): Oh no! LOL. Maybe that’s how odd practices get canonized!

  21. Keith on September 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    “Let’s not bounce the baby.” My neighbor (when I lived in Provo) said this was consistent counsel his father–a member of the Twelve–gave at various infant blessings.

  22. BTD Greg on September 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    I always bounce babies and toddlers, almost out of habit, when I hold them. My kids all found it soothing. I think I probably did too.

    Then again, I’m a fidgety person.

    I’m skeptical that there’s any doctrinal significance whatsoever–bounce or no bounce.

  23. Jax on September 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Perhaps someone needs to write a Mormon etiquette blog and address this kind of situation!![too many people in circle]

    I’ve heard counsel to have no more than 10, but that to me is too many as well. I keep it to direct progenitors – me, both grandparents, great-grandfathers when they were around, – that made us 5, and with the Bishop it made a very comfortable six. I know that in the WorldWide Leadership Training when they went over ordinances (was it Packer teaching?) they specifically stated that people need to keep the number small. I wish they had specified a number.

  24. Mark B. on September 28, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    The “vote for me or I shoot the dog” is a shameless take-off from an old National Lampoon cover. Go to the Wikipedia entry.

    And, one way to stop the bouncing, and to keep the baby from feeling as if he’s about to fall into the abyss, is to hold him close, the way anybody with any sense would hold a newborn. Sure, it’s a bit of a challenge for the mob to get their hands on the child, but don’t invite so many, and remind them that they don’t need to touch the baby for the blessing to be effective.

  25. Alison Moore Smith on September 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    When I had very little kids and took them shopping, I would push the stroller back and forth to sooth the kids if I stopped to look at something. That translated into my pushing my grocery cart back and forth when I stopped to check something — even if I had no baby in it.

    Not really an LDS cultural artifact, just my own, preemptive, cart soothing.

  26. N. on September 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    4 kids: none bounced.
    All of them sitting on their mother’s lap, with my hands/fingers on their heads.
    Worked great.

  27. Kevin Barney on September 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    I think it’s your first theory. Every baby blessing I’ve been involved in, the baby has automatically been bounced. It has become a cultural expectation.

  28. Cameron N on September 28, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    I think if we see this as part of mormon culture, we’re a little too obsessed with analyzing mormon culture.

    Preemptive soothing, plus the tired/don’t hold still thing.

  29. Cameron N on September 28, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    @ Keith (21) ‘ “Let’s not bounce the baby.” My neighbor (when I lived in Provo) said this was consistent counsel his father–a member of the Twelve–gave at various infant blessings.’

    Let me take a second try at a more constructive post:

    Upon further reflection, bouncing probably inhibits the Father’s/Priesthood holder’s ability to focus and be open to the Spirit, between the rhythm and the physical action that introduces another variable with variance between Priesthood holders in the circle. This seems like wise counsel.

    I think the cultural expectation takes things a little too far. Do men really think that others will think they’re bad fathers if they don’t bounce a baby? Enough to do it when it’s more difficult? I am skeptical, but those obsessed with church cultural quirks will dwell on it. Honestly, I’m sure this idea has occurred to most parents in the church, but they just let it go.

  30. Cameron N on September 28, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    @#3 Tim

    I like that approach to blessing babies as well. I felt more comfortable focusing on principles and qualities and feelings rather than a checklist of pseudo-patriarchal blessing hopes. I did mentions covenants and returning/exhalation I think, but I avoided the common exact wording (find a young man blah blah blah temple, etc).

    We’ll see what happens when #2 gets blessed in 2 weeks. =)

  31. Keith on September 29, 2011 at 2:53 am

    I’ve been in circles where it felt as though, after three more preparatory bounces, the baby would be sent into the air in blanket toss fashion. Really distracting.

  32. Chadwick on September 29, 2011 at 5:02 am

    I’m the type that is always moving. I tend to tap my foot, I tend to move a lot when I talk to people rather than stand still, etc. So, yes, I naturally rock my babies, even when they don’t want/need to be rocked, and that probably included the prayer circle. I’ve also shopping cart smoothed just like Alison has. For me it seems natural. After all, the baby rocked back and forth in the womb, no?

    I also think there is another part to it too. Ever given a priesthood ordination with 10+ other men? And your hand is at the bottom, with 9 other sweaty palms on top? Not a good situation to be in. Gently rocking the baby would probably take the pressure off the hands at the bottom or alleviate some of the pressure or neighborly sweat from those hands with a gently rocking motion.

    So contrary to some posts above, this would lead to a better feeling of the spirit than not. Having your mind removed from the notion of “why is so and so’s hand so sweaty?” or “nine hands sure is a lot of pressure on my poor hand; will this prayer ever end?” can actually help you focus more, not less. Maybe I’m the only one who feels these ways. I am a little OCD. And a CPA. But to me it makes perfect sense.

  33. NewlyHousewife on September 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I’m now all the more excited over the idea of having baby blessings done in a ward other than your own. If the blessing is incredibly bad/memorable, no one you see on a regular basis can mention it. If Bishop A has sweaty hands along with a knack of exorbitant bouncing, you and Bishop A never have to spend time together.

  34. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 29, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    After three kids and now 13 grandkids, I have made it a point to tell the brethren quietly “Don’t bounce the baby”. I have experienced the trampoline effect, when the harmonic rhythm of the whole assemblage of arms and baby starts getting out of control, like the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or that funny new one in London that was attacked in the Harry Potter movie.

    It only takes one determined “bouncer” to make everyone else feel like they either need to go along or forcibly resist. When your arm is stretched out, you have to really brace your muscles if you are going to prevent someone else from pushing your hand up and down. In my worst experience, I was afraid the negative G-force was going to launch the baby into a ballistic arc, like one of the earthquakes that hit Eureka, California periodically and lift houses off their foundations.

    The converse is when a big circle of male relatives presses down on the head of a little 8 year old during their confirmation. They really lean into it. It’s like they’re going to enforce the command to “receive the Holy Ghost” by forcing it through the kid’s skull. Some of the children must come out of the experience a half inch shorter than when they sat down.

    In both cases, there is an application of force through the “laying on of hands”. Perhaps we can emphasize to our brethren that the spiritual effectiveness of these ordinances does not depend upon musculature, but upon our spirits being in tune with the person who is voice.

  35. jader3rd on September 29, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    No better way to terrify a child than by having them hanging in the air, with nothing to roll over onto (from their point of view), then to bounch them up and down, making them fear for their lives.

  36. Mike Parker on September 29, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    In my experience, bouncing makes things worse. Infants are born with two instinctive fears, falling and loud noises. Bouncing them up and down usually triggers the first one.

    When I blessed all three of my children, I cradled them in my arms and had the other men in the circle reach in to place their hands on the child. My kids felt safe and secure. No crying. One of the best experiences ever.

  37. Marc Ritcher on October 1, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Hah! This is great! Every time I’ve stood in the circle, it inevitably happens. We just blessed our third child in July and I spoke with everyone about it beforehand (don’t rock the baby). Sure enough someone started moving up and down and the baby started crying. I feel bad because I lost my train of thought and forgot some important things in that bless. There will be other blessing for my daughter in the future.

    Next time I will follow Mike’s advice and cradle our baby. Great topic.

  38. KerBearRN on October 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I’m always a bit surprised we take an unwrapped baby, suspend it in midair on its back, and bounce (creating a falling sensation). I can only imagine the effect on the baby’s startle reflex. No wonder they cry. Surprised they don’t also spit up. I am a labor/delivery/postpartum/NICU nurse, and I have always taught my moms and dads “The 5 S’s”– swaddling, side-lying, swaying (side to side rocking motion instead of up and down), shushing, and sucking — which is actually straight out of Dr. Harvey Karp’s techniques in The Happiest Baby on the Block. These are techniques that basically mimic the experience of the womb for a newborn, whoset nervous system wont really mature to the point of being able to tolerate the world outside the womb for about 3 months (this is the “fourth trimester”). And for a good number of parents, these behaviors are instinctual. But sometimes we let “tradition” override instinct. So by my reckoning, sadly, the typical baby blessing circle position violates at least 3 of those just-common-sense and best practices, leading to what I am pretty sure is a frightening experience for the baby. I applaud those families who have advocated for their baby by insisting on a more appropriate position.

  39. KerBearRN on October 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    In fact, look at the baby’s arms in the pic on the post– looks to me like a classic startle posture, arms thrown up/out to arrest a fall.

  40. Ryan on October 3, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Let’s not forget what’s really important here. What did you fathers do to prepare in order to give a blessing by the Spirit? That’s what really matters.

    For me, I fasted. By the way, it did the people in the circle not to bounce. I have a big family but only had a few in the circle with me. I feel it is always important to do the blessing at church. The blessing was sweet, unique, and very humbling for me as a father.

  41. Richard on October 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Another one I’ve wondered about is whether it is required to have the Baptizee plug his or her nose when being baptized. I always found that unnecessary. When I was 8, I was a really good swimmer and didn’t need to hold my nose so water wouldn’t go up it. But they made me do it. Is that required? I’ve seen in Church videos where John the Baptist baptized the Savior and they didn’t hold noses in biblical times.

  42. Kent Larsen on October 4, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Richard, LOL, I had no idea anyone was making that a requirement. IMO, it isn’t.

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