New parents can literally give their babies a magic touch to help them develop, grow and be happy and healthy.
There are many benefits of human touch to infant growth and development. In modern western society do we touch enough? Or do we need, as a society, to promote additional activities like infant massage to encourage parents to touch their babies more for healthy growth and development. There’s a wealth of scientific evidence proving how beneficial, and indeed vital, it is for babies to experience gentle, loving touch. It’s one of the easiest and loveliest ways to bond with your baby, and here are ten reasons why:
- Touch and Grow: Touch can directly stimulate growth because massage sends a message to the pituitary gland to release growth hormones. This improves intellectual and motor development, and also helps regulate your baby’s temperature, heart rate and sleep/wake patterns.
- Touch and Glow: Endorphins are the feel good, happy hormones released when we exercise, when we relax and when we experience skin-to-skin contact. The high level of endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin and low levels of cortisol that your baby will feel when touched or during a massage will contribute to feelings of well-being.
- Touching Nerves: Newborn babies have underdeveloped circulatory systems and it takes a while for their bodies to get acclimatised to life outside the womb. During this transitional period, their fingers and toes don’t get a full flow of blood. Massage strengthens the circulatory system, therefore helping a baby’s blood flow to promote the healthy growth and development of their bones, muscles, nervous system and brain.
- Touch Down: The world is a stressful place, not just for adults but for babies too. No matter how much we try to protect them, babies inevitably suffer from stress. The process of birth itself is traumatic enough, and then there’s the noise and bustle of modern life to cope with. When stress occurs, the body releases a hormone called cortisol which reduces the flow of oxygen and nutrients around the body. In infants and children, this can be particularly damaging, affecting growth and reducing brain development. After a busy day, we might reach for a glass of wine, or a comforting cup of tea to unwind, but babies don’t have many ways to help them calm down. Just as massage can help us to feel relaxed, so too for babies. It reduces the base amount of cortisol in the blood and therefore reduces the level of toxic stress.
- Soft Touch: Babies are learning to work their muscles which makes them tense up, as does emotion demonstrated by crying, which babies inevitably do at some point during the day! So your baby’s little body can become a tangle of tight muscles. Touch, in the form of regular baby massage, is a highly effective way to ease this.
- Natural Touch: The importance of touch for premature babies was recognised back in 1979 in Colombia, where neonatal wards had a shortage of incubators for babies with severe hospital infections. Doctors turned to nature for inspiration, specifically kangaroos, which hold their young as soon as they’re born. They sent mothers home with the instruction to regularly hold their infants bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position, feeding them only breast milk. What the doctors, who coined the term ‘Kangaroo Care’, found was that this skin-to-skin contact decreased the babies’ dependency on incubators. Astonishingly, mortality rates plunged from 70 percent to 30 percent.
- Out of Touch: The importance of touch for a baby’s growth and development is also demonstrated by studying what happens when touch is denied. Many studies have been carried out since the 1930’s to look at the importance of touch and care. These centered around old fashioned orphanages where it was believed that babies, like plants, would grow and develop normally purely through being kept warm and fed! Failure to Thrive is a medical condition where an infant or child fails to grow or gain appropriate weight over a length of time. They’re prone to infections and heal slowly. The child may appear thin, sad, weak and pale and withdrawn, losing the motivation even to eat. This is similar to a deep depression where the baby seems to give up on living. Or they may be jumpy, irritable and angry. In orphanages, the number one cause of Failure to Thrive is simply a lack of touch, stimulation and love, and a child may even die due to missing these essential requirements for growth.
- Losing Touch: Research has shown a direct relationship between children’s bone growth and amount of loving touch received. A three year old child deprived of maternal affection, had half the growth in his bone size than the average three year old (Montagu, 1986: 244).
- Touch Off: Human beings evolved to expect to be carried 100% of the time as babies, but since the invention of the baby carriage in 1848, the majority of babies are transported in prams and buggies. Distracting technology and forward facing pushchairs are exacerbating this ‘hands off’ style of modern parenting. It’s a ticking time bomb, with sensory deprivation starting to affect visual, social and language development. There are worrying reports that up to 1 in 5 children in the UK are starting school with some sort of developmental delay.
- Keep in Touch: Massage is one of the best ways for your baby to experience the benefits of touch. Massage therapy for children has been found to improve medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, cancer, autism, skin problems, juvenile arthritis, eating disorders and other psychiatric syndromes. In general, children show lower anxiety and stress levels, better mood, improved sleep patterns and higher levels of attentiveness when treated to a daily massage by their parents.
“Normal” parenting levels of touch and interaction should be enough for healthy growth as suggested by Underdown, Barlow and Stewart-Brown, but in the modern western world we touch our babies more infrequently than ever before and are possibly at risk of dropping to levels where infants may not receive enough touch for “normal” development. In extreme cases this may lead to failure to thrive but may also prevent our children from achieving their potential for growth and development physically and emotionally.
Activities that promote increased human touch such as infant massage may be one way of providing the antidote and making sure that our babies from infanthood through to childhood are indeed receiving the “normal” or indeed the “required” levels of touch and interaction to achieve healthy growth and development of body and brain.