The Importance of Physical Touch and Affection
Part one in a two part series on the effects of physical touch on your baby's growth and development.
Hey Mama, Happy New Year!
As you probably didn’t know, cause, you know, it’s a made-up holiday, National Cuddle Day (!) was on January 6th this year. With that in mind, and in the spirit of new beginnings and healthy habits, we’re going to be kicking off the New Year with a series on the importance of cuddling! Sounds silly, we know but it’s actually a scientific fact that humans, and especially babies, need physical contact for proper development.
The following have been found to be direct benefits of physical contact for babies:
- Regulated heart rate following birth
- Regulated temperature following birth
- Regulated breathing following birth
- Enhanced awareness following birth
- Improved sleep patterns for baby (and you too!)
- Improved digestion and elimination for baby
- Reduced fussiness in baby and increased comfort in their surroundings
- Improved neurological function in babies
- Increased weight gain for premature and full term babies
- Improved relaxation for you and baby (1)
- Lays the foundation for baby to learn empathy (2)
- Encourages bonding for both parties
- Helps baby associate physical touch with pleasure/love
- Helps baby create connections with others later in life (2)
- Increased levels of oxytocin, decreased levels of cortisol (3)
- Increased self confidence later in life (5)
- Greater ability to deal with life’s stressors (5)
- Creates a healthy sense of personal boundaries (5)
- Improved muscle tone + circulation (5)
- Improved pulmonary and immune functions
- Reduced discomfort from teething, congestion, colic, and emotional stress (5)
- Deeper sleep
- Improved milk production for mom
- Increased brain function from time spent quiet and alert, rather than crying (5)
- Greater self worth
When physical touch is absent during a child’s early life, it can have devastating repercussions. Babies who aren’t huggled, cuddled or touched enough have been observed to stop growing, and in extreme cases, even when being provided adequate nutrition and care otherwise, they have died (2). This phenomenon was most notably observed in overcrowded, underfunded orphanages in early America, where infant mortality rates hovered around 35% (2). This disturbing trend led reformers to replace orphanages with the modern foster care system, in hopes of providing children with a higher quality of life (4).
The benefits of physical touch affect adults too. From an association between winning NBA teams and their physical contact with each other, to adults whose perception and memory of a given situation is actually changed by physical contact, the results are clear (3). In older children, studies found that children who received a positive, affirming touch on the back or arm from a teacher were twice as likely to be positively engaged than students who did not (3).
But how does this happen? Does it actually work?
It’s a pretty simple chemical process that happens inside our brains thats causes touch to have such far reaching effects. A warm touch has been shown to cause a spike in levels of oxytocin, a stress relieving hormone that actively reduces levels of the nasty little stress hormone cortisol. When levels are lowered, the prefrontal areas of the brain – the part responsible for regulating our emotions – can relax, allowing it to perform it’s other chief function, problem solving, more easily. Essentially, the body interprets this type of touch as saying, ‘I’m here to help; I can share the load’. For little ones, this is endlessly reassuring and will provide the foundation for how they interact with others for the rest of their lives.
Come back for Part II next week when we’ll be sharing some easy ways to incorporate meaningful touch into your routine with baby and debunking one of the oldest motherhood myths out there! Have a great week mama!