The Power of Touch
By Jennifer Lacey
Cradle, cuddle and massage your baby and find wonderful benefits for you both.
On a warm spring afternoon, after months of watching and feeling my first baby grow inside my ever-expanding belly, finally that precious moment I dreamed about arrived. My son, only 2 hours old, was wheeled into my hospital room and placed beside my bed. The nurse left, and I pulled the bassinet toward me. With anxious arms, I gently lifted him up and cradled him in my arms to explore his tiny frame with the light touch of my fingers. Those early strokes and cuddles began the bonding process with my son.
The first few months of your newborn's life presents a journey filled with feelings of nervousness and never-ending questions. Am I holding her right? If I touch him this way, will he feel uncomfortable? Touch is one of a newborn infant's most highly developed senses at birth. Caressing and cuddling your baby is vital to making him feel safe and secure.
"Infancy is truly one of the most amazing periods in a human being's development, and it is very important for parents to learn both the verbal and nonverbal cues that infants demonstrate," says Karen Goldschmidt, B.S.N., a registered nurse in the newborn infant center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pa. "Infants are calmed by holding, enjoy warmth, suckling, being swaddled, especially with decreasing environmental stimuli such as light and noise," she says. Repetitive, rhythmic movements and sounds will remind infants of their former living space in your womb.
Newborns love the attention they receive from their parents and other family members. Through the use of inventive touching games, they will begin to strengthen their senses of sight, hearing and touch. For example, hold your newborn's face close to your own, and gently sway to some calming music.
Another good way to initiate early stages of play with your baby is to touch and name the parts of your baby's body. Jump from foot to hand or hand and foot, and watch their expressions as you recite. These simple interactions promote recognition and bonding.
However, it is important to watch closely for signs from your baby that signal disinterest, since newborns can get over-stimulated. "A parent can sense their baby's level of tension by observing their eyes," says Dr. Ivor Horn, assistant professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "Looking away from you or squirming around as you touch can signal a baby's need for a rest."
According to the March of Dimes, kangaroo care is the practice of holding a diapered baby either on the father's bare chest or between a mother's breasts with a blanket draped over the newborn's back. Modeled after the way a kangaroo carries her offspring, this skin-to-skin contact is primarily done with premature babies in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). However, it brings benefits between parent and newborn regardless of gestational age at birth.
"Kangaroo care is best accomplished in a chair that allows the parent to lounge at a 45-degree angle," says Goldschmidt. "The parent's shirt or blouse is closed around the infant and an additional blanket is placed on top."
The March of Dimes says that kangaroo care results in less time spent crying, increased weight gain, better regulation of heart and breathing rates and better maintenance of body warmth. "The definite benefits of kangaroo care over holding is that the skin has a lot to do with the temperature stability for babies and it also benefits Mom through the promotion of human milk production," says Debra Brandon, Ph.D., a registered nurse and neonatal program director at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
Although specialists differ about the long-term benefits of kangaroo care, most agree it is a loving form of touch and bonding between parent and child. "It is a wonderful expression of loving touch that all parents can engage in," says Goldschmidt. "The infant is calmed through the warmth of their parent's skin and the sound of the parent's breathing, voice and heartbeat."
Dr. Frederick Leboyer, one of the first physicians to dispute society's beliefs about lack of awareness in a newborn, observed that for babies, "being touched and caressed, being massaged, is 'food' for the infant."
Infant massage attempts to combine many degrees of bonding, including eye-to-eye contact, touch, verbal communication and rhythm in a program that features both parent and child interaction.
The benefits to both Mom and Baby may include relief of a newborn's colicky disposition, restlessness and sleeplessness. A study published in the December 2002 edition of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics also suggested that a massage before an infant's bedtime may adjust sleeping patterns to coordinate with the mother's by increasing the production of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone.
Hospitals or certified massage professionals offer classes in infant massage. Organizations such as the International Association of Infant Massage, located in Ventura, Calif., specifically train and certify instructors to teach parents how to touch and communicate with their newborns.
Words of Advice
"I would say to all parents of infants to touch, cuddle and love their infants as much as possible, but also give their infants the freedom to learn who they are," says Brandon, who cautions that parents of preterm infants need to learn what touch is good for their infant at what time. "For sick preterm infants, a gentle hand lying on a hand may be all that an infant can tolerate, while an older stable preterm infant may be able to tolerate gentle stroking," she says.
Try seeking advice from other parents, friends or relatives, says Dr. Anne Hansen, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and clinical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Children's Hospital in Boston, Mass. She also recommends parents attend any newborn classes that may be offered in their local hospital.
Close Contact: How Kangaroo Care Can Help Your Preemie
Bonding for Life: Developing That Special Connection With Your Baby
To Have and to Hold: Cradling and Loving Your Newborn