Have you ever wondered why picking your baby up feels like the most instinctive thing in the world? Turns out we are hard-wired to do so; it’s our maternal instinct to carry a baby. When a baby is born, he is very vulnerable, with highly limited vision and underdeveloped hearing. This means that touch is the way your little one is going to explore the world for the first couple of months while other senses are starting to develop.
Touch is an important part of a baby’s development, but just how significant is it?
In a recent study carried out by Nathalie Maitre from Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, she and her colleagues measured the brain responses of 125 infants (including premature and full-term babies) and showed that a baby’s earliest experiences of touch have lasting effects on the way their young brains respond to gentle touch.
The results showed that preemies had a reduced brain response to gentle touch in comparison to full-term babies. However, preemie babies in the NICU had a stronger brain response to touch when they spent more time in gentle contact with their parents or healthcare providers.
“Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother’s womb”, says Nathalie Maitre.
For new parents, especially those whose babies must endure tough medical procedures, remember: your touch matters more than you know. Don’t let the opportunity of carrying, hugging, or having contact with your baby pass you by.
In another study carried by Dr. Ruth Feldman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, they studied the impact of different levels of physical contact on premature babies.
“In this decade-long study, we showed for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children’s functioning 10 years later in systems shown to be sensitive to early maternal deprivation in animal research”, said Feldman.
Compared against standard incubator-cared children, the Kangaroo Care group (KC), that is when a baby is held skin-to-skin against the chest of an adult, usually one of the parents; showed better cognitive and executive skills in repeated testing from 6-months to ten years.
When the babies turned 10 years old, those who had received Kangaroo Care maternal contact as babies were healthier across the board showing:
- More regular sleep patterns
- Better neuroendocrine response to stress
- Mature functioning of the nervous system
- Better overall cognitive control
Both studies remind us the long-term consequences of parental contact and touch. The improved level of stimulation provided by skin contact seems to positively influence the development of the brain and to deepen the bond between a parent and his child.
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