Babies are born with a complete understanding of one beautiful and universal mammalian language: TOUCH. Communicating love, tenderness, affection, responsiveness and respect, we are evolutionarily primed to crave touching our babies and with good reason; without it, our children fail to thrive physically and emotionally.
(Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images)
But, in western society touch is becoming akin to an endangered species. Tracy Cassels, PhD, suggests that on average, infants are being touched by another human only 12 to 20 per cent of the time ,which drops below 10 per cent before babies reach their first birthday. These statistics are horrifying. If we want to safeguard our children's mental and emotional health, we need to reverse current trends.
Touch is our most primal form of communication, requiring no subtitles, translation or explanation.
Holding, comforting and touching our babies communicates our emotions in a way they can understand.
Modern parenting ideals sabotage what evolution has spent hundreds of thousands of years crafting to perfection. So, why is it so important to touch our babies (children and partners) as often as we can?
1. Because actions speak louder than words.
Newborn babies don't understand the spoken language we speak. So, while we can repeat that we love them over and over again, holding, comforting and touching our babies communicates our emotions in a way they can understand. Even as children grow, touch communicates our emotions with much greater impact than words. Dr. Tiffany Field, of the Touch Research Institute in Miami, found that infants who were reassured with touch smiled and vocalized more and cried less than those who weren't.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says touch is ""the first language we learn," and "our richest means of emotional expression" throughout life. Even the briefest touch can lead to immediate changes in how people think and feel; one study has shown students who receive a supportive touch on the back or the arm are twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who don't.
2. Because when it's most difficult is probably when it's most important.
Holding a crying baby is difficult; no two ways about it. I vividly remember my son crying continuously for what felt like hours on our second night home from the hospital after his birth. I'd nursed him, changed him, ensured he wasn't too hot or too cold but he would not stop crying. Was I failing him already? I wish I had known this powerful piece of information that night: our role isn't to stop our babies crying, but simply to be there for them. To hold them and love them through it all.
Babies who cry alone show significant elevations in blood cortisol as a result of the stress they experience, but a baby who cries in their parent's arms does not experience the same spike in cortisol. Sometimes, like adults, babies just need to cry. And when they do, our touch provides the reassurance they need as they learn how to regulate their own emotions.
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3. Because it regulates a baby's physiology.
Newborns rely on their mother's touch to help regulate their temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, blood glucose and more. When mothers hold their babies, especially skin-to-skin, their physiology mimics their mother's and their tiny bodies learn the normal set points for physiological parameters.
The warmth of a mother's breasts are naturally modulated to keep her baby at the perfect temperature, promoting restful sleep, optimal oxygen saturation and saving her baby the energy it takes to stay warm. This redirects valuable calories into more critical things, like growth. Breast temperature can rise and fall rapidly as your baby is warmed. As your baby starts to cool, your breasts heat up again -- as much as two degrees Celsius in two minutes.
4. Because it protects a mother's mental and emotional health.
Skin to skin contact releases oxytocin, the love hormone, which facilitates bonding and feelings of affection. Tiffany Field found that twice-weekly massages from their partners in women experiencing prenatal depression eased pregnancy pains but also reduced depression, anxiety and anger. Interestingly, their partners also experienced a reduction in mood related issues. So, positively touching our babies not only benefits them but also benefits us as parents.
Ignore anyone who tells you not to hold your baby close.
5. Because it fires and wires our babies' brains.
A newborn's brain is a mere 25 per cent of its eventual adult size. Skin-to-skin contact, also known as "kangaroo care," has been shown to be a critical factor in firing and wiring brain development in a positive way. Countless studies have proven the undeniable benefits of kangaroo care in premature infants, including lower rates of infections, higher exclusive breastfeeding rates, greater weight gain and reductions in hospital stays.
In a recent decade-long study, Dr. Ruth Feldman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, studied the impact of varying levels of physical contact on prematurely born infants. Her team found that, in the first six months of life, maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact resulted in mothers being more sensitive and expressing more maternal behaviour towards their babies. Ten years later, children who had received more skin-to-skin contact demonstrated better cognitive skills, executive abilities, more organized sleep, better neuroendocrine response to stress and more mature functioning of the autonomic nervous system.
6. Because it makes us happier, healthier and reduces aggressive tendencies.
Massage, for as little as 20 minutes a day, has been shown to improve health conditions ranging from dermatitis, asthma, anxiety, autism, arthritis and sleep disorders. And it also reduces aggressive tendencies. Dr. Field examined the amount of touch and aggression in both preschoolers and adolescents in the United States and France. She found greater positive touch in France across all age groups and an associated decrease in aggressive and violent tendencies.
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We simply can't spoil our babies with too much love.
Our world is becoming increasingly divided and pathologically disconnected. Misguided world leaders are proposing we build walls when history clearly shows us we need to tear them down and foster connection and unity. I believe, as Mother Teresa once said, that if we want to change the world, we need to go home and love our families. Positive touch is one of the most powerful communicators of our love.
Yet, as parents we're often pressured into separating ourselves from our babies and children -- to build invisible walls and to establish artificial physical boundaries. We're told that if we touch, hug and hold our children too much we'll spoil them. It's time to challenge and bury this outdated approach -- it is laughably false, reflecting cultural values, not scientific fact or a parents' instinct.
So, ignore anyone who tells you not to hold your baby close. Enjoy skin to skin, wear your baby and ditch the stroller (even if its just sometimes). Hop in the bath together, massage your baby and sleep together, keeping your baby warm in the wee small hours of the morning.
A version of this post by Tracy Gillett originally appeared on Raised Good.
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