“He is the heaviest six-week-old baby I’ve seen in thirty years”, exclaimed our Scottish midwife.
As the words left her mouth, our son smiled and laughed as he reached out to be picked. “You’ve got a good one here” she said, winking at us and giving me a much needed, soul-soothing hug. I’ll never forget that moment, nor the comfort and reassurance her words and affection brought me as a happy, yet exhausted new mother.
Whether my little man was in fact the heaviest baby she’d seen or not, I couldn’t help but wonder, if he was, why it might be. While I’ll never know for sure, as I placed my baby inside his Moby wrap my maternal instincts pointed to an obvious answer.
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.
Touch is our most primal form of communication, requiring no subtitles, translation or explanation.
Sadly, in western society touch is becoming akin to an endangered species. Tracy Cassels, PhD., of Evolutionary Parenting, suggests that on average, infants are being touched by another human only 12-20% of the time which drops below 10% before babies reach their first birthday. These statistics are horrifying and if we want to safeguard our children’s mental and emotional health we desperately need to reverse current trends.
Modern parenting ideals and cultural practices are sabotaging what evolution has spent hundreds of thousands of years crafting to perfection. Many babies spend excessive amounts of time in containers, seamlessly moving from car seats to strollers and bouncy seats to swings. While some are essential to modern living, especially when we’re parenting alone, we need to be cognizant of not exploiting the safety and convenience they offer. So, why is it so important to touch our babies (children and partners) as often as we can?
Because actions speak louder than words. Newborn babies don’t understand the 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 our 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.
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 dramatic spikes in 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 us, babies just need to cry. And when they do, our touch provides the reassurance they need as they learn how to navigate their emotions.
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 2 degrees celsius in two minutes.
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 massage 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.
Because it fires and wires our babies’ brains. A newborn’s brain is a mere twenty-five percent of its ultimate adult and 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. The same benefits apply to full term babies.
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.
Because it makes us happier, healthier and reduces aggressive tendencies. Massage, for as little as twenty 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.
Because it deepens the bond between fathers and babies. The connection between fathers and their babies are strengthened by infant massage. One study involved fathers massaging their babies for 15 minutes prior to their bedtime routine for one month. At the end of the study, fathers who massaged their infants were more expressive and showed more enjoyment and warmth during interactions with their babies.
WE CAN’T SPOIL OUR BABIES WITH LOVE
Our world which 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 said, 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, parents are often pressured into separating themselves from their babies and children – to build invisible walls and to establish physical boundaries. We’re told that if we touch, hug and hold our children too much we’ll spoil them. The very notion is laughably false. It reflects cultural values, not scientific fact.
So, why do I think touch resulted in my son weighing a whopping fourteen pounds at six weeks? Because touch is mostly all we did. And if you’re happy to do the same, go for it! Ignore anyone who tells you not to and 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 with your baby keeping her warm in the wee small hours of the morning.
And remember, there is no expiry date on positive touch. Too often as babies become toddlers and children we withdraw and our communication is dominated by spoken language. Keep touching a part of your communication. Play with your kids, get down on the floor, hug them good morning and good night and everything in between.
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family” Mother Teresa