New advances in technology now show us that it is not genetics alone that determine a child’s early development, rather a combination of genetics, the child’s daily environment, and their experiences. Scientists claim that childhood development is dependent upon what a child sees, hears and touches, from the earliest days after birth. The experiences these young children receive in their first three years of life are crucial to brain development.
Touch is critical to development. And touch is an exceptionally important type of sensory stimulation which provides infants with information about their bodies, the location of their bodies and body parts, communication from the caregiver, and can be either soothing or stimulating. Of all the sensory experiences, touch is how the infant first knows he is loved. It isthe source of comfort and it is essential for the development of his basic senses of trust and security. Touch literally sends signals to the brain telling it to grow (to build the neural connections).
Touch has benefits that go well beyond expressing affection and developing an emotional bond. In 1996, developmental psychologist Dr. Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Facility in Miami, Florida, found that premature babies, who were massaged for 15 minutes, three times a day, gained weight about 50% faster than other premature babies (those who were left in their incubators.) The greater weight gain seemed to be caused soley by the touch they received. The massaged infants did not eat more that the others; it seemed that the tactile response increased the baby’s metabolism, making it more efficient. Massage had other effects too. Massaged infants were discharged from the hospital earlier than their counterparts. And after eight months, the massaged babies still weighed more than the infants that did not receive the tactile stimulation. Besides that, they performed measurably better on mental and physical tasks than did the unmassaged babies. Touch seemed to be a powerful factor in their early growth and development.
Infant massage promotes both physical and psychosocial benefits for babies. Physical benefits include the relief of symptoms of colic, teething, constipation and digestive problems, restlessness, and sleeplessness. Tactile stimulation helps to increase the baby’s weight gain and improve overall development. Relaxation, resulting from the massage, also helps the baby relieve stress. Touch increases the infant’s self-esteem, enhances their sense of love, of respect and trust, of acceptance, and of communication. Tactile stimulation improves the infant’s body awareness and muscle tone coordination. And, as babies communicate through their bodies, touch facilitates a reciprocal interactive process between the infant and the caregiver which fosters bonding and attachment.
There are definite benefits to parents and caregivers too. Infant massage improves the parent’s ability to read infant cues, bonding and increases their confidence. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress, and to improve the parent’s sense of well-being. Parents indicate increased feelings of competence and confidence in their parenting role as a result of infant massage. Parents feel more capable of helping their baby relax in times of stress. In addition, baby’s daily massage time offers a parent the opportunity to relax and unwind from the busy pace of life. This is especially beneficial for parents working outside the home who must be separated from their baby during the day.
The birth of a baby is the beginning of a continuum of events…and warm, responsive parents (and caregivers!) who cuddle and talk to their babies, who provide them with challenging learning experiences, who give them loving care and stimulation, promote healthy brain development for their children.