A newborn's sense of touch may be as acute as his ability to taste and smell. Touch -- mostly yours -- stimulates everything from deeper breathing to immune development to emotional well-being. Studies have shown that under conditions of extreme neglect, newborns who are hardly held or cuddled experience emotional and developmental problems. By contrast, extra TLC can have remarkable results: Lots of physical contact gives babies a developmental boost, even countering, for example, many of the effects of preterm birth.
Touch matters throughout life, but never more than in the first year. It's one of the most profound ways you'll communicate with your baby, whether you're trying to show him he's safe, he's loved, or it's time for lights-out. Kathleen Groom-Nguyen of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, uses touch to console her 3-month-old son, Liem: "He gets frustrated during 'tummy time,' so after a few minutes I'll flip him over on his back, massage his belly, and give him a few tickles. That usually cheers him up."
Newbies: A kangaroo lesson
Newborn preemies are often whisked away to spend weeks or longer in the neonatal intensive care unit. It's necessary, of course, but touch should be part of the healing too. With "kangaroo care," first introduced in the late 1970s and now increasingly popular, a mom spends several hours a day holding her premature baby skin to skin against her chest. (Dads can do this too.) Studies have shown that a preemie who gets kangaroo care tends to cry less, sleep better, breathe more easily, breastfeed longer, and gain weight faster. And moms report a deeper bond with their babies, and more confidence in caring for them.
Researchers now know that kangaroo care is a great idea for all newborns. Healthy full-term newbies carried skin to skin by their moms reap the same benefits as preemies. It works at home too: Holding your new baby closely can calm and soothe. "Will was a healthy full-term infant, but even so, my husband and I had lots of skin-to-skin contact with him because we thought it would be good for him," says Robin Holmes of Los Angeles. "I rarely wore a shirt to nurse him at home, and sometimes he would just lie across my husband's bare chest." Touch also helped Will settle down. "If he was fussy at naptime, I'd wrap myself around him, putting my hand on his head, and just cuddle with him. That always did the trick to relax him."
Catherine Grillo writes about health for Self, Good Housekeeping, and Town & Country.
Easing boo-boos and moreWhen a mom holds her baby, it can be a potent form of pain relief, finds Elliott Blass, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He's studied the power of touch for newborns undergoing the "heel stick," a standard blood-collection procedure. One group of babies, clad in diapers only, were held by their moms against their bare chests; the others were resting in their cribs. The babies held by their moms cried 82 percent less and showed fewer signs of distress, such as grimacing or racing hearts. "What struck me while looking at the babies' faces was that in many cases you didn't even know when the heel stick was being made," says Dr. Blass. It worked best when a mother and her baby were given a few minutes to get comfortable. Georgie Slade of San Mateo, California, knows all about how a mom's touch can relieve her infant's anxiety. "Michael came out crying when he was born, but as soon as I held him close and started talking to him, he settled down," she says. "When you hold them really tightly, it's calming -- I think it reminds them of being snug in your womb again. And how can you resist? They're baby-soft and so cute!"
A strong, gentle hand
Touch, it turns out, doesn't just stimulate a physiological reaction. It's a form of communication. And how you handle your baby makes a difference. While hesitant touch conveys uncertainty, fear, and unease, firm, consistent contact signals safety, protection, and love, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine, where over 90 studies of baby massage have been conducted. But don't worry about technique: The simple act of holding a baby -- the pressure of her against your skin -- is a calming influence. "My 6-month-old twins love to have their feet massaged," says Lauren Earthman of Houston. "They look so tranquil."
Staying in touch
For a mom, nothing's more natural than holding her child. But modern babycare conveniences can get in the way. "Babies are happier when they're held," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. "I live in the suburbs, where you have to use strollers and car seats. It takes a lot of effort to then put the baby in a front carrier, instead of attaching the car seat to the grocery cart. But it's worth the effort." When it comes to children, human touch, even more than words, speaks volumes.
Baby massage: A hands-on guideMassage is a wonderful way to calm your baby down before bedtime. It's never too early to start. "We massage preemies in the hospital," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the Touch Research Institutes in Miami. Here's how:
Your baby should be naked, except for a diaper, on a comfortable surface (a bed, couch, even your lap), in a warm, quiet room. Use baby oil or a moisturizing lotion.
Apply gentle yet firm pressure with each stroke. Be aware of your baby's cues: If she wriggles or fusses, stop, and try again another time. You can do this entire sequence or just the parts your baby likes. Begin with your baby on her back:
* Using your open hands, stroke both sides of the face, from the forehead to the neck and back.
* Using a circular motion, stroke over the temples and the hinge of the jaw.
* Lightly massage behind the ears and continue the circular movements over the rest of the scalp, avoiding the soft spot on the top.
* Wrap both hands around the baby's upper arm and stroke down from the shoulder to the wrist, using a gentle, milking motion.
* Stroke the palms of the hand with your thumbs.
* Gently squeeze and then pull each finger.
* Starting with hands flat on the baby's chest, stroke up toward the neck, and then downward to her sides.
Stroke, using a hand-over-hand motion (like a paddle-wheel), moving from high to low on the abdomen.
* Wrap both hands around the baby's upper thigh and stroke down toward the ankle and back up to the hip.
* Use a thumb-over-thumb motion to massage the entire bottom of the foot.
* Gently squeeze and then pull each toe.
* Make small circles all over the top of the ankle and foot.
Now turn your baby facedown:
* Stroke, in a hand-over-hand motion, from the upper back to the buttocks, with the flats of your hands contoured to the shape of her back.
* Using fingertips, massage in a circular motion from your baby's head to the buttocks over the long muscles next to the spine. But don't rub directly over the spine. Continue massaging down the legs to the feet.
* Finish by lightly massaging your baby's neck and shoulders.