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A Mother's Touch

Your baby's skin is soft, smooth, and infinitely touchable. Give in to the temptation! Stroking and hugging your infant early and often is one of the best things you can do for his development.

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.