Babies learn about the world around them in many ways. One critical way that babies learn is by being held or touched by their parents, especially when making skin-to-skin contact. Today’s Parenting Tip aims to help parents understand the importance of touch and contact for developing babies and how it supports healthy child development.
Why is Skin-to-Skin contact so important?
In the early stages of life, “somatosensory processing” is a critical way that babies learn about the world. Somatosensory processing is a fancy way of saying that our brains can process and interpret external sensations. The somatosensory cortex is an area in our brains that receives and responds to sensory input, including pressure, temperature, itch, or tickles. For children, touch is the first of the five senses to develop so these sensations are particularly important for developing children.
Because of this, touching is a crucial component to bonding between new parent and child. According to many different research studies, skin-to-skin contact between babies and parents is especially important. This contact helps reinforce feelings of safety and nurturing in children, leading to positive outcomes for children including:
- Improved physical health, especially in the cardiovascular and respiratory systems,
- More success with breastfeeding, and
- Improved attachment between parent and child.
In addition to having health and attachment benefits, skin-to-skin touching can also help improve the way that children process information about the world around them.
According to a study from the University of Washington, stimulating the somatosensory process in babies supports early learning. In a study published in January of 2018, researchers used brain imaging tools to observe what happens in a baby’s brain when they experience different kinds of touch. Their results showed that touch helps children learn what different parts of their body are which helps developing babies learn by imitating their parents what things like their hands or feet are used for.
What does this mean for parents? Not only does it mean that you can’t “spoil a child” by holding them too much, but actually that holding your babies helps prepare them for a lifetime of health and learning! This contact is just as important for Dad as it is for Mom, so both parents are encouraged to make skin-to-skin contact when holding their babies.
Doctors recommend that skin-to-skin contact begin immediately after birth and beyond. Parents should hold their baby for an hour or more, but the skin-to-skin contact doesn’t have to occur only when babies are held. Parents can also practice infant massage to promote bonding and development in their children. For more information on infant massage, check out this great article from the Mayo Clinic.