Touch stimulates growth-promoting substances Healthcare providers have long known that babies who are touched a lot grow better, and now there is research to back up this observation. There seems to be a biological connection between stroking, massaging, and grooming infants and their growth. Touch stimulates growth-promoting hormones and increases the enzymes that make the cells of the vital organs more responsive to the growth-promoting effects of these hormones. For example, premature infants in a “grower nursery,” where they can gain needed weight, showed 47 percent more weight gain when they received extra touch.
Animal researchers have recognized the connection between a mother animal’s licking her offspring and how well her babies grow. When newborn pups were deprived of their mother’s frequent licking (equivalent to infant massage), the level of growth hormone decreased, and the pups stopped growing. Even injecting growth hormone into the untouched pups would not cause them to grow. Only when the mother animal’s touching and licking were restarted did the pups resume their growth.
Researchers have found that human babies deprived of touch showed decreased growth hormone and developed a condition called psychosocial dwarfism; even more amazingly they also did not grow when given injections of growth hormone. Only when given human touch did these infants grow. This finding implies that touch causes something beneficial to occur at the cellular level that makes the cells respond to growth hormone. Yes, there is something magical about a parent’s touch.
Not only is touch good for the body, it’s good for the mind. Studies show that newborns receiving extra touch display enhanced neurological development. Why this smart connection? Researchers believe that touch promotes the growth of myelin, the insulating material around nerves that makes nerve impulses travel faster.
Babies receiving extra touch show enhanced secretion of digestive hormones. Researchers believe that this is another reason that touched infants grow better. It seems that touch makes the babies’ digestive system more efficient. Babies with colic caused by the irritable colon syndrome may have less trouble in the colon when massaged frequently.
Research shows babies receiving extra touch become better organized. They sleep better at night, fuss less during the day, and relate better to caregivers’ interactions. Touch settles babies. Massage can be a wonderful tool for helping your baby go to sleep at night.
Being on the receiving end of loving hands helps babies develop a feel for their body parts by learning which areas of the body are most sensitive and which need relaxing. Being touched gives value to a person, like an adult feeling “touched” by the remarks of a friend.
A daily massage helps you to get in touch with your whole baby, to read her body language, and to learn her cues. Giving your baby the right touch is just one more step up the ladder of learning about your baby. Infant massage is especially valuable for the parent and infant who had a slow start – for example, when separated by a medical complication. Massage helps parent and baby reconnect. For the slow-start mother who doesn’t feel naturally “motherly” toward her newborn, massage is the extra spark to ignite the fire. Likewise for the slow-to-warm-up baby, massage helps break down the barrier so that the uncuddly baby begins to enjoy being touched – and the parents get used to touching their baby.
Several employed mothers in our practice use an evening infant massage as a tool to help them reconnect with their baby after being away for the day. This special touch enables them to tune into baby and tune out their work as they reenter home life.
For dads who are novices at caring for babies, massage is a hands-on course in baby handling. Also, it’s important for baby to get used to dad’s touch as well as mom’s. Babies thrive on different strokes.
High-need babies have tense muscles that need help relaxing. Every baby needs lots of touching. High-need babies need more (of course!). There is no touch more soothing than that of skin on skin, although for some babies, skin- to-skin contact can actually be stimulating, so you have to proceed with caution. Infants who spend time in neonatal intensive care units after birth tend to have a high need for pleasant touch, since so much of the touching they experienced in the hospital was painful. Some very sensitive high-need babies – dubbed “uncuddly babies” – actually pull away from being touched because they find it threatening or overstimulating. In this case, a routine of careful, gentle touches can gradually accustom this baby to being handled and will help him eventually enjoy touching.
Handicapped infants – and their parents – particularly benefit from infant massage. Studies show that massage helps motor-impaired infants better communicate their needs to the parents – a process called social cueing. Massage puts you in touch with your infant’s body signals.