Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the
first language and the last, and it always tells the
truth Margaret Attwood
Our babies crave touch. It’s not a want. It is a need. Without touch, babies don’t thrive. Babies that don’t receive enough loving touch are at a higher risk for behavioural, emotional and social problems as they grow up. Yet how often do we hear, “Put the baby down”, “You’ll spoil the baby”, “You’re making a rod for your own back”. All too often we are bombarded with baby paraphernalia that encourages us to put our babies elsewhere: car-seat, pram, swing, bassinet, or the cot, and yet from a baby’s perspective being separated from its mother is life-threatening.
Babies need to be touched.
Despite knowing this throughout time, the Victorian era saw families move away from this. The invention of the pram, the idea that children should be seen and not heard and the outsourcing of baby feeding through the growth of the formula industry have had a lasting impact that continues even today. It took some rather distressing studies by Harlow in the 1930s for the tide to slowly begin to change.
By all means follow the link to read about the studies, but I shall summarise the results here by saying that Harlow found there was far more to the mother-infant bond than an exchange of milk. He found that it was the physical contact that was needed for the optimal psychological development of baby monkeys. Harlow concluded that “nursing strengthened the mother–child bond because of the intimate body contact that it provided” and the hormonal cascade it initiated. “Touch was more important than food to motherless monkeys!”
Researchers Drs Mason and Berkson in their monkey studies, demonstrated that touch and movement were both required for normal brain and social development. They demonstrated that only the monkeys who were raised with both touch and motion had normal brain development, demonstrating the importance of maternal holding and carrying throughout infancy for ongoing brain development.
A 2017 study also looked at the effects of a ‘nurturing touch’ on a baby’s development. The type of touch that this encompasses may include massage, stroking, holding, carrying and skin-to-skin contact. Breastfeeding fulfils many of these roles. Dr Maitre showed that an ‘intentional supportive touch’ is “absolutely crucial to babies’ developing brains.”
Ideally, positive, nurturing touch begins after birth when a baby is placed skin against skin with the mother. This becomes the catalyst for a hormonal dance that mammals have perfected over millennia.
Hormones known to influence attachment behaviours are increased by skin-to-skin contact. Babies in contact with their mothers are assisted in regulating their heart and with the mother’s body warming in response to a baby that is cool and falling as the baby’s temperature rises. This in turn helps a baby maintain its blood sugar level as the mother’s body continues to assist the baby with these functions meaning that calories can be used for growth instead. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends skin-to-skin contact should continue for at least the first three months and even beyond. They suggest snuggling for around 60 mins at a time.
So cuddle, love and hold your babies. Maybe at times it will feel that they will never be happy anywhere else. Don’t despair, as Dr Maitre says, “Gentle touch, especially skin on skin, is just one of the most important things parents can do for their babies.”
“A touch communicates what can't be said.”