Mothers who have meaningful skin contact during pregnancy and labor tend to have easier labors and are more responsive to their infants. Touching and handling her baby assists the new mother in milk production by aiding in the secretion of prolactin, the “mothering hormone.” By regularly massaging her baby, the mother not only sets up a cycle of healthy responses which improves her mothering abilities day by day, but also enhances her baby’s well-being, his disposition, and the relationship between the two of them. The process begun at the embryonic stage thus continues, allowing a natural unfolding of the baby’s potential within the safe and loving arms of his mother.
Nurturing stimulation of the skin—handling, cuddling, rocking and massage—increases cardiac functions of the human infant; massage stimulates the respiratory, circulatory, and gastrointestinal systems—benefits especially appreciated by the “colicky” baby and his parents.
A baby’s first experience with the surrounding environment occurs through touch, developing prenatally as early as 16 weeks. Nature begins the massage before the baby is born. As opposed to the extremely short labors of most other animals, it has been suggested that a human mother’s extended labor helps make up for the lack of postpartum licking performed by other mammal mothers. For the human infant, the contractions of labor provide some of the same type of preparation for the functioning of his internal systems as early licking of the newborn does for other mammals.
Touch impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood, and has long-term effects. Through this contact, newborns are able to learn about their world, bond with their parents, and communicate their needs and wants. Eighty percent of a baby’s communication is expressed through body movement. When parents engage in appropriate touch, young children have an improved chance to successfully develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually.
Infants who experience more physical contact with parents demonstrate increased mental development in the first six months of life compared to young children who receive limited physical interaction. This improved cognitive development has been shown to last even after eight years, illustrating the importance of positive interactions. Infants who receive above-average levels of affection from their parents are shown to be less likely to be hostile, anxious, or emotionally distressed as adults.
Studies with premature babies using techniques similar to those taught in this book have demonstrated that daily massage is of tremendous benefit. Research projects at the University of Miami Medical Center, headed up by the Touch Research Institute’s founder, Dr. Tiffany Field, have shown remarkable results. In one study, twenty premature babies were massaged three times a day for fifteen minutes each. They averaged forty-seven percent greater weight gain per day, were more active and alert, and showed more mature neurological development than infants who did not receive massage. In addition, their hospital stay averaged six days less. After many years of study and observation, the International Association of Infant Massage has established guidelines for using massage and holding techniques with premature babies.
Dallas psychologist Ruth Rice conducted a study with thirty premature babies after they had left the hospital. She divided them into two groups. The mothers in the control group were instructed in usual newborn care, while those in the experimental group were taught a daily massage and rocking regime. At four months of age, the babies who had been massaged were ahead in both neurological development and weight gain.
The natural sensory stimulation of massage speeds myelination of the brain and the nervous system. The myelin sheath is a fatty covering around each nerve, like insulation around electric wire. It protects the nervous system and speeds the transmission of impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. The process of coating the nerves is not complete at birth, but skin stimulation speeds the process, thus enhancing rapid neural-cell firing and improving brain-body communication.
In 1978 transcutaneous oxygen monitoring was developed, which enabled physicians to measure oxygen tension in the body through an electrode on the skin. It was discovered that hospitalized infants experienced tremendous upheavals in oxygen levels when subjected to stress. Touch Relaxation, holding techniques and massage have been found to mitigate these fluctuations, and these methods are being used in hospitals routinely now to help infants maintain a steady state through the stresses of diaper changes, heel sticks, and other intrusions.
New research demonstrates similar results every day, confirming what age-old tradition has told us: infants need loving touch. Lawrence Schachner, M.D., a professor at the department of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami School of Medicine, advises that touch can benefit babies with skin disorders such as eczema. “It may furthermore improve parent-baby interaction,” he says. Dr. Tiffany Field concurs. She notes that loving touch triggers physiological changes that help infants grow and develop, stimulating nerves in the brain that facilitate food absorption and lowering stress hormone levels, resulting in improved immune system functioning. A report by the Families and Work Institutes states that during the first three years of life, the vast majority of connections between brain cells are formed. They conclude that loving interaction such as massage can directly affect a child’s emotional development and ability to handle stress as an adult.
Loving skin contact and massage benefits mothers and fathers as well. Mothers who have meaningful skin contact during pregnancy and labor tend to have easier labors and are more responsive to their infants. In addition, research has shown that mothers whose pregnancies were filled with chronic stress often have babies who cry more and for longer periods than those whose pregnancies were peaceful and supported.
Fathers who make the effort to bond with their infants by giving the mother loving massages, talking and singing to the baby, feeling its movements in his partner’s belly, attending classes with their partner, and reading up on infant development and psychology, and massaging their infants, tend to be more attentive and accomplished fathers. By regularly massaging your baby (and getting some loving massages yourself during pregnancy), you set up a cycle of healthy responses that improve your mothering skills day by day and enhance your baby’s well-being, disposition, and the relationship between all three of you.