A life from a life, from their mother’s womb into their mother’s arms, babies are born expecting to be touched and held. The baby is born exquisitely sensitive and their first contact with this world and the life that goes on around them comes through their sense of touch. It is body contact with their mother that ensures contact with reality until all the other senses have developed. For the first six weeks and beyond, the new baby needs to be held, rubbed, rocked and re-assured until all their senses have coordinated, in what is for them, a new and an unfamiliar environment.

Our sense of touch is known as the ‘mother sense’ as it is the first of the senses to become functional in all living species so far studied. It is the baby’s primary means of communication and the way in which a baby is held and touched will tell the baby all they need to know about how loved and wanted they are.

For a parent, body contact is a principle regulator of broodiness and the more the new born baby is held and stroked the stronger the maternal and paternal instincts are aroused, instincts that impel us to protect and nurture our young baby.

It’s been shown that even though all other needs are met, without touch babies suffer. Without touch babies can die of a disease called Marasmus, a Greek term meaning to ‘waste away’. There are many early records to be found of this, among the earliest, seen on the internet.

In 1248, the historian Salimbene claimed ‘they could not live without petting’. Salimbene describes how the German Emperor Frederick II conducted an experiment to find out what language children would speak if they were raised without hearing anyone talk. He took some newborns away from their parents and gave them to wet nurses who were forbidden to touch or talk with them, besides being fed. These babies never learned a language because they all died long before they could speak.

Following birth the biological unity between a mother and her child does not stop but remains just as intensively functional. Limbic regulation is the term used for a synchronised hormonal exchange between a mother and her baby that ensures that her baby’s organic rythms are maintained and regulated. Limbic regulation is dependent upon body contact with the mother and at times this body contact can be vital to the health and survival of her baby. One of the most important biological functions that limbic regulation directs is the development of the brain itself as we now know that attachment determines the ultimate nature of the child’s mind.

In premature babies (and babies left to cry it out in cots) for example, it’s been shown that the temperature of a baby in an incubator, even though the incubator remains warm, can be a whole degree lower than the temperature of a baby in body contact with his mother. When returned to their mother, body contact with her baby will stimulate the mother’s temperature to rise a whole degree in order to raise her baby’s temperature, or similarly will drop a whole degree if her baby’s temperature needs to be lower. This mother and child biological interaction is known as ‘thermal synchrony’. 

Similarly, a breathing dysfunction known as ‘periodic breathing’ which is long considered to be normal among premature and other babies removed from their mothers, disappears immediately the baby is placed back in his mother’s arms. Also, the heart of a baby separated from their mother can beat irregularly from moment to moment, yet as soon as they are reunited with their mother the baby’s heartbeat will regulate.

All of these irregularities are caused by stress hormones, high levels of which are found in babies separated from their mothers from birth. High levels of stress hormones are known to have all kinds of unpleasant effects which among others, can leave the separated baby cold and exhausted.

The way in which babies are touched and held, and the frequency with which this is done, has a marked effect upon the physical and emotional health of the child. To develop the language of your touch is to improve upon the ease and confidence with which you are able to handle a baby, and through every tactile expression provide your baby with tangible evidence of a loving caring presence.

For a good beginning, the sooner the better is the best time to start and from birth, holding, kissing, bathing together, lying together, lots of stroking and regularly oiling to cleanse the baby’s skin will fulfill the tactile needs of your baby.

A study by Ruth Feldman, a psychology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an adjunct assistant professor at Yale University, after measuring 80 couples’ levels of oxytocin — the “cuddle hormone” that supports touching, hugging, holding and trusting others — Dr. Feldman found this increases in fathers as well as mothers after childbirth. Oxytocin has a powerful effect on the brain, making people feel less anxious and more calm, trusting and connected.

Oxytocin is usually studied in connection with mothers and attachment, but according to Feldman’s studies, ‘fathers of newborns have oxytocin levels comparable to mothers’. Both parents’ levels exceeded those of single men and women who weren’t in romantic relationships, she says, suggesting infant care stimulates the hormone for both parents.

The more the men in the study cuddled their babies, the more their oxytocin levels rose. “It’s like a feedback loop,” Dr. Feldman says. “The more you touch, the more oxytocin you have; the more oxytocin, the more you touch. But you need to initiate this feedback loop, by holding and touching and kissing your baby.”

Babies are born expecting to be held, handled, cuddled, rubbed and kissed andthe way in which babies are touched and held, and the frequency with which this is done, has a marked effect upon the physical and emotional health of the baby. To develop the language of your touch is to improve upon the ease and confidence with which you are able to handle a baby.

From Developmental Baby Massage by UK leading expert Peter Walker (Available Amazon)

For more information about Peter Walker and Developmental Baby Massage visit www.babymassageteachertraining.com.