Hand an object to a baby, and see what happens. He will look at it, grab it, and then try to bite it. Babies will taste just about anything because their receptors are hypersensitive. This is a baby’s way of discovering. But this benefit is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of human touch.
Research shows a definite connection between loving human touch and neonatal health and development. A gentle and nurturing skin-to-skin embrace offers several benefits to a baby, especially when this contact is made by the mother. The positive effects go both ways too, providing caregivers with positive physiological and psychological effects from physical contact with their newborn.
We asked Marsha Campbell-Yeo about the benefits of human touch for both mothers and babies. Dr. Campbell-Yeo is a certified neonatal nurse practitioner and an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research, combined with her work with our friends at Huggies, helped develop the Huggies Hug Plan, demonstrating the importance of hugging newborns and babies.
The Huggies Hug Plan
Together with medical experts, Huggies developed the Hug Plan to help mothers initiate skin-to-skin contact with their newborns immediately after birth. The plan includes:
- Skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivery
- A naked embrace between 1-2 hours or more
- The mother and the baby lying at a 45-degree angle
Skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivery and in the days, weeks, and months following birth has miraculous benefits. Here are 16 examples of the powerful benefits of human touch.
A 1986 study showed that mothers in Africa had continuous involvement with their children. Approximately 90 percent of the time, these !Kung mothers responded to their babies within 10 seconds. Because their babies were attended to so promptly, these infants cried less than their Western counterparts.
The flip side is not a pleasant one. Allowing children to cry to the point of suffering can be wounding. When they are left to cry alone for an hour, children can develop a fear of abandonment. Isolation causes a fear of never being held again. They can also experience separation anxiety, which can ultimately lead to a deep sense of insecurity. This can disturb relationships throughout the rest of their lives. The absence of affection that originates in the crib can cultivate into the world.
15 Connects Dads
Babies tend to be mother-centric. Because of the maternal bond that starts in utero, it is common for dads to feel like the odd man out. It’s virtually impossible for fathers to compete with the mother-baby bond. Some fathers find it harder to bond with their newborn when mom gets most of the baby’s attention. But a dad has an important role to play. A physical connection with the father will teach the baby that comfort doesn’t only come from mom. This connection should start as early as possible.
Sometimes, mothers are given medications that make it difficult for her to stay awake after delivery. If the mother is physically incapable of holding her baby, dad can step in. He can take off his shirt to hold the baby skin-to-skin until mom is able. The important part is to have the newborn feel connected to someone who loves them.
14 Better Regulation of Body Temperature
During pregnancy, the womb and the placenta provide warmth to an unborn baby. After delivery, the same needs are met when the newborn is placed on the mother’s chest. In the loving arms of mom, the baby maintains an optimal body temperature, allowing the newborn to conserve energy. This warmth regulates the baby’s body temperature better than any other method.
Even though doctors, nurses, and midwives understand that undisturbed, naked body contact after birth has several benefits, babies are still being whisked away after delivery for routine procedures. This is a practice Dr. Campbell-Yeo would like to reform. She's an advocate for an alternative approach to neonatal care, and sees no reason to bundle babies in blankets or place newborns in incubators when a mother’s arms can usually do a better job.
13 More Physiological Stability
Touch offers newborns opportunities to help them achieve their ideal potential. Physical contact can actually promote physiological stability to a baby, and the miraculous power of human touch can be seen in a number of ways.
For example, newborns need blood sugar for energy. During pregnancy, glucose is transmitted through the placenta. After delivery, the baby receives nutrients through breast milk or formula. But, if a breastfeeding mother is not yet producing enough milk or a newborn is not able to feed, there is a risk of glucose levels falling very low.
Skin-to-skin contact provides stability to maintain the newborn’s blood sugar level. This closeness raises the baby’s glucose levels, which reduces the risk of hypoglycemia. This is just one example of how touch becomes an essential component to keeping a newborn stable and regulated.
12 Parent Mental Health
Researchers have found a connection between early human touch and stronger parent-infant interactions. Physical contact improves the parent-baby relationship because it helps the transition for new moms and dads.
As parents settle into their new roles as caregivers, touch establishes the parent-child relationship. The more they are physically connected, the stronger the attachment. Touch builds a positive and constructive foundation that not only gives the baby stability, but it also gives the parent confidence as a caregiver.
It doesn’t matter by whom, but if we are physically touched in a positive way, we instantly feel more connected to the other person. And the thing with touching is that even if we initiate the physical contact, we also reap the benefits of the touch. The benefits of human touch is not a one-way street.
11 Infant Mental Health
A parent’s love is a unique kind of love. Moms and dads are connected to a tiny human being whom they love so much, and babies reciprocate the love in every way possible. Infants are thoughtful and generous with affection. They like to be physically close to their parents. Whether it’s a hand on the cheek, fingers on the lips, or a nibble on the nose, a baby is a touchy-feely being.
An attentive parent offers love and nurturing. Old-fashioned TLC strengthens the bond by reinforcing the baby’s belief that mom and dad will be there for them. Sharing an emotional bond with a baby is just as important as supplying food. This loving presence has been proven to increase a child’s social skills.
Researchers have also found that a loving exchange that is attentive to a baby’s needs impacts the development of the brain, and nerve cells. Close connections that are made in infancy are the basis of optimal health in adulthood.
10 Greater Success With Breastfeeding
Putting things in the mouth is not only a baby’s way of discovering objects, but it’s also an instinctive reflex to prevent starvation—a survival-of-the-fittest way of thinking. If a baby’s cheek is stroked, the baby will instinctively turn towards the touch. It’s an innate response to help the baby find the mother’s nipple.
Newborns have instinctive abilities; one of them is called the breast crawl. When there is skin-to-skin contact, and the baby’s chin brushes up against the mother’s breast, the baby will make small head and body movements toward the breast and the nipple. (Their sense of smell helps them navigate.) Eventually, the newborn will grasp the breast and find the nipple to feed. Continuous naked body contact after birth will accelerate a newborn to learn the breast crawl independently.
9 Stimulates Milk Ducts
Tender breasts are one of the first indicators of pregnancy. The milk glands of the breasts engage when a woman is expecting. After delivery, the glands produce the colostrum, a thick, yellowish liquid which is the first milk that mothers produce.
It’s natural for newborns to prefer their mothers above everyone else because moms are a food source. Babies pick up the scent of their breast milk. After the newborn finds the mother’s nipple and suckling begins, the newborn will receive small amounts of the pre-milk colostrum. Drawing out the colostrum kicks milk production into full swing.
Starting within the first hour after birth increases the mother’s milk production while boosting the newborn’s feeding ability. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that immediately after delivery, the naked newborn is placed vertically on the mother’s bare chest until breastfeeding has commenced.
8 Faster Weight Gain
Dr. Campbell-Yeo’s research did not focus on direct human contact with newborns with regards to a baby’s weight gain, but it did show how prenatal massage affected birth weight. The study examined pregnant women who enjoyed therapeutic treatments of prenatal massage, and those who didn’t. The babies born to women who had prenatal massages weighed more and had greater gestational ages at birth. The babies born to women who did not receive prenatal massages had lower birth weights.
Other research shows that skin-to-skin contact promotes weight gain after delivery, while the absence of touch impedes growth. In one study, babies who were orphaned after World War II showed not only a physical failure to thrive but also a psychological stunting. It was later realized that a lack of physical contact slowed the babies’ metabolism, stunting their growth.
7 Psychological Impact
Studies found that babies who do not develop a secure bond are less likely to find and believe in love or feel love for another person. They can become adept at mimicking the emotion without genuinely feeling it themselves. This phenomenon is common with children from adoptive centers who have spent the majority of their lives in the care of non-nurturing caregivers.
For some, cuddling versus coddling is the issue. All babies want to be held, yet critics of kangaroo-care are concerned that too much kindness will teach children to be whiny, reliant, and clingy. In an effort to prevent spoiled children, people have created unnatural practices that limit how much we cater to our kids, but most contemporary psychologists agree that a caregiver can’t spoil a newborn with love and affection. In fact, warm parents tend to raise kids who become confident adults.
6 Improved Sleep
Imagine rocking a baby to sleep, and then placing the little one in a crib. Soon after, the newborn wakes up crying. This can happen because the baby misses a warm and comforting touch. Babies need an embrace to feel safe. This is why a parent can easily send a baby back to sleep with snuggles and cuddles.
There are various methods of touch when it comes to babies:
- Holding and hugging in a regular way
- Holding different ways
- Infant massage
- Direct skin-to-skin contact
A loving hug is a sign of safety to a newborn or a small child. For instance, if a baby is frightened, physical contact from a trustworthy person is the fastest way to calm the infant down. Research shows that gentle caressing, light stroking, and baby massage can offer a newborn a wealth of beneficial results. One of these positive effects is a more regulated sleep.
5 Stronger Parent/Baby Attachment
From the minute a baby is born, he is ready to interact with his mother. A newborn yearns to be protected by a parent after birth, the way nature intended. The importance of the mother-baby bond is well known but studies have shown the value in the first few hours following birth.
During skin-to-skin contact, the baby transfixes on the mother. The mother’s warmth, smell, sound, and touch help the newborn feel safe. While the mother exchanges sensory information with her baby, the mother becomes more in tune with her newborn.
Close contact is the most wonderful way to ease the introduction of a newborn to the world, but birth doesn’t always go as planned. Complications need immediate attention. If a neonatal emergency takes priority, it doesn’t mean the mother and the baby have missed their chance to bond. But skin-to-skin contact should be initiated as soon as possible.
4 Less Illness
The uterus is a relatively hygienic environment. Immediately after birth, though, the baby becomes exposed to various bacteria. Researchers have found that newborns who receive early postpartum skin-to-skin contact have stronger immune systems. The risk of infection is reduced because the baby becomes surrounded by the mother’s bacteria, improving the newborn’s immunity. A hug can actually activate the immune system.
Loving physical contact can also help a sick baby, while the absence of touch can add insult to injury. The lack of human touch can increase the baby’s blood pressure, heighten stress and hormones, and reduce oxygen in the brain. The absence of a human connection can even prompt higher rates of disease and death in newborns. The power of touch becomes particularly essential for infants with low birth weights.
3 Healthier Brain Development
Within the womb, babies are protected from loud noises and light. The uterus is a comforting environment, surrounded by the smells and sounds of the mother. After delivery, babies are suddenly separated from their mothers. The noise and excessive light are foreign and startling. This is why babies need an external womb that includes physical contact, warmth, and nourishment. All of these are necessities that encourage positive body and mind development.
Studies have found that a lack of touch can negatively affect a baby’s brain development. On the contrary, hugs, regular affection, comfort, and prompt reactions to crying in babyhood are beneficial. A secure attachment is necessary for normal brain activity, social adjustment, and an overall health and well-being. Who knew a simple hug could actually help a baby flourish?
2 Less Stress
After birth, big changes are happening to the baby. For the first time, the newborn is using his lungs to breathe. He is also becoming familiar with gravity. Naked contact with the mother helps the baby adapt to his new world.
Babies are calmer when they hear their mother’s heartbeat because it’s a familiar sound from the womb. Research shows that this connection reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. The skin-to-skin comfort of the mom helps the newborn normalize his own breathing and heart rate, reducing the negative effects of separation.
As they enter new environments, infants can use their own touch to self-soothe, but babies who are deprived of human contact often become distressed. Even when babies have an adequate supply of food and shelter, a lack of human contact is enough to create a physical and emotional anxiety.
1 Reduced Pain
Any mother who has received a professional massage will know the wonders this hands-on therapy can do for everyday stress. But even a loving touch or a caress can help lessen perceived pain.
The sense of touch stimulates tactile nerve endings in the skin. With a loving touch, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins are released into the body, flooding the bloodstream. These are the love hormones that produce feel-good sensations. Happy chemicals alleviate pain and depression while triggering enthusiasm and happiness.
Dr. Campbell-Yeo noticed this in her research as well. Routine procedures, such as the collection of blood through a heel prick, were made easier by applying affection. She found that babies had a better tolerance of pain when held by a parent. Also, the smooth and steady heart rate of mom or dad will let the baby know that he is safe. There is certainly a magic in the power of touch.
For more information about the Huggies Hug Plan, visit the Huggies website.