The sense of touch is one of the most important senses for human beings.
Studies have shown that children who receive more warmth and affection from their mothers in the form of physical contact, tend to be more resilient to pressure, frustration and distress.
In the womb, the skin is the first sensory organ to develop in the foetus, and it is the most developed “sense” at birth.
In fact, as early as six weeks after conception, when the baby is just 3cm long, it reacts to the gentle stimulation of its newly formed skin.
This happens long before the baby develops eyes and ears. For nine months before being delivered, the baby is cocooned in the warm secure environment of the mother’s womb – it is for this reason that newborns are wrapped tightly in cloth to re-create that warmth and security.
A baby’s skin is different from adult skin and continues to develop over the first year of life. A baby’s skin is 30% thinner compared to adult skin. Besides being less mature, the baby’s skin loses water faster, is more vulnerable to the environment, and more sensitive to sunlight.
The structure of the baby’s skin makes it more prone to irritation, infection and allergies, compared to adults.
Understanding the structure and function of the skin will help us better appreciate the importance of touch.
The skin is the largest organ of the body, and its functions include protecting the body from irritants, allergens, bacteria and ultraviolet (UV) light; regulating body temperature; experience the senses of touch, pain and temperature; removal of waste products through sweat; and production of vitamin D.
The first three years of life are critical for the brain development of babies. The development of the brain depends on the type of stimulation provided to the baby through the senses of touch, hearing, vision and smell. Several studies have demonstrated the importance of skin-to-skin contact for the development of growing babies.
Touch has been found to show benefits such as mother-infant attachment, parental satisfaction and a better home environment.
Mother-infant skin-to-skin contact has also been shown to reduce pain in newborns.
Touch has also been demonstrated to significantly impact breastfeeding, blood sugar levels after birth, and infant crying. In fact, even for pre-term babies, touch has been found to have a positive impact – those babies who experienced skin-to-skin contact (“kangaroo care”) while feeding showed significant improvement in their nervous system development.
As a parent, you may ask: What is the best way to stimulate my baby’s development through touch?
Babies simply adore being in close, physical contact with their parents or caregivers – they thrive on affection. In fact, they say that one can never over-do it when it comes to affection showered on babies.
A simple method to quickly calm your baby is to cradle him/her in your arms and rock them. Cuddling, caressing, holding and rocking are all important to your baby.
Simple loving gestures such as stroking their hair or back as you hold them not only conveys your love and affection, but also soothes, comforts and reassures them.
In addition, there are two daily rituals that can serve as excellent opportunities to stimulate the sense of touch in your baby – bathing and massage.
Bathing – While bathing, the baby enjoys not just the parent or caregiver’s loving touch, but also the warm water and bubbles in the bath tub.
When this is combined with singing and talking to the baby (stimulating hearing and language development), making eye contact (stimulating vision) and using a cleanser with a mild fragrance (stimulating smell), it has a positive impact on the baby’s development.
Massage – Baby massage is practised around the world and science has demonstrated its healthy developmental benefits. Through massage, a gentle loving touch can aid in promoting improved social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.
Massage is known to have both physical and emotional benefits.
The physical benefits include babies gaining weight faster as massage improves digestion and absorption by stimulating the gastrointestinal hormones, and also relieving constipation and colic in babies.
Another physical benefit is improving the quality and duration of sleep.
The emotional benefits of massage are that these babies are more sociable – infants who are massaged tend to greet people with more eye contact, reaching out, smiling and vocalising.
Massaged infants tend to be happier as touch reduces fussing and crying.
There are plenty of opportunities for you to make touch an integral part of your baby’s life. After all, this is the simplest form of non-verbal communication that conveys affection, security and reassurance.
Make touch an integral part of your daily baby rituals like bathing and massage. These special moments during your baby’s growing years will not only impact his emotional, mental and physical development, but also forge a strong bond with the family.
So, the next time you are with your baby, touch more, hold more, hug more.
Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail is a consultant paediatrician and paediatric cardiologist. This article is courtesy of Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. This article is also supported by an educational grant from Johnson & Johnson. For further information, please visit www.mypositiveparenting.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Informa-tion published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.