In 1920, a popular New York pediatrician reported a startling and heartbreaking problem: Institutionalized babies were dying. In fact, all institutionalized babies were dying. The death rate was 100 percent for children under two. What was happening? They had shelter. They had food. Their diapers were changed. They were otherwise healthy. So what was the missing link?
The missing link was touch. These babies received little to no touch and caring, and thus could not thrive. The surprising (or not so surprising) truth is that babies require touch, love, and cuddles to survive. Touch is the only sense a child cannot live without. Deaf children will survive, blind children will survive, but unless a child can touch and be touched, he will die.
Now, I’m guessing our ancestors never worried about giving their children an adequate amount of touch. Babies were carried and held because that’s how mammals do it. Evolution made it so. The safest place for babies was in the arms of a caretaker. In many traditional hunter-gatherer societies like those observed in The Continuum Concept, babies are held constantly in the first six months of life. In Bali, at the age of three to six months, families will perform a ground-touching ceremony to celebrate the first time a baby’s feet touch the ground. Humans aren’t the only species that need copious amounts of touch. In his famous studies in the sixties, Dr. Harry Harlow found that rhesus monkeys preferred softer, cloth-covered dummy mothers to wire ones, and in times of distress preferred the cloth dummy if it offered no food, even if food was available with the wire dummy.
Science offers an explanation for this innate need for touch that mammals have. It has to do with the “drug store” in our brains. Certain chemicals in our brains, for example oxytocin and opioids, create a sense of calm and content, and the ability to handle stress well. But the only way to activate these chemicals in the human brain is through loving human touch! Research with other mammals indicated that the more physical contact infants had with their mothers, the less fearful and the more confident they were. They were also more mentally healthy later in life and were calmer and more attentive with their babies, and coped well with the stress of unfamiliar environments. Dr. Henry Chapin, the famous pediatrician who made the observation about institutionalized children, also found that animals who did not receive enough touch tended to be frequently tense and exhibited impulsive, anxious, irritable, and aggressive behavior.
Research consistently confirms how critical touch is to human development. Our skin and brain develop from the same embryonic tissue and some scientists even consider skin to be the “outer layer of the brain.” In Colombia, the phenomenon of “kangaroo care” (periods of skin-to-skin contact) was invented out of necessity to keep premature infants warm, but doctors noticed some other positive side effects: the death rate, which had once been at 70 percent for premature infants, dropped dramatically. Doctors found that skin-to-skin contact regulated the babies’ heart rates and breathing, and helped them to gain weight more easily. Additionally, researchers found that preemies who received kangaroo care had brain development patterns in ten minutes that was equal to four weeks of development in preemies who received normal care. They found that skin-to-skin contact helped develop neural synapses and increased the amount of alpha waves (associated with contentment and bliss) in the brain.
When an infant is distressed, she does not have the ability to calm herself. If she is left alone, her brain will release toxic stress hormones, like cortisol. The positive opioids are withdrawn and she will become “hyper-aroused.” This is not a good arousal. If infants experience frequent periods of uncomforted distress, their brains become wired to be in state of panic and anxiety. It takes the touch and comfort of a calm adult for her brain to release the chemicals that make her feel content again. In fact, a growing body of research indicates the infants who experience long periods of crying alone actually have different brain development patterns, and can develop a constant feeling of anxiety, even when safe. It isn’t actually the crying that is the problem. It is uncomforted crying that can affect brain development. So if holding your baby doesn’t produce immediate relief, don’t worry. Know that your calm presence is having an effect on his brain, even if the immediate effects aren’t obvious.
Science has given us the information we need to create optimal brain development for our children. Let’s let go of antiquated notions that have been proven untrue. Babies don’t manipulate in the conventional sense—they don’t have the ability to! They aren’t even capable of clear thought. Babies cry to be held because their brains require it. It is a system completely beyond their control. Loving touch from a parent or caregiver is necessary and beneficial for infant brain development. The more the better! Of course this doesn’t mean you must hold your babies constantly. And it doesn’t mean your life has to be drastically inconvenienced. Babywearing, the art of carrying a baby in a sling or pouch, is a fantastic way to provide the closeness that babies need. It’s actually much less physically taxing than carrying around a huge carseat carrier. Slings and wraps are becoming much more popular these days and are even available at chain stores like Target and Babies R Us.
Most of us are not able to hold our babies constantly. In traditional societies, babies are often cared for by multiple caregivers, including children as young as three years old. So this is article isn’t suggesting that mothers are required to be with their children at all hours. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had to set my baby in her crib while she cried to let myself “cool off.” In fact, if a parent is not calm, this is the best option, as an upset parent doesn’t have the same calming effect. I’m simply suggesting that we recognize that physical touch is a need, not a want, particularly for the developing human brain.
Babies’ and children’s lives are filled with enough stresses naturally without creating unnecessary stress trying to “train” them to be independent before they are ready. So when you’ve fed your baby and you’ve changed his diaper and all his needs seem to be met, yet he is still distressed, remember touch is just another need, like food or shelter, and sooner than you’ll be ready, he won’t be a baby anymore and won’t need you as much. Infancy is one of the most precious, profound times of a child’s life. I recommend soaking it up. To learn more about touch and infant brain development check out The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland and I Love You Rituals by Becky A. Bailey, Ph.D.