Touch builds relationships and the brain

The skin is the first and largest sensory organ to develop, it needs a lot of attention daily from right after birth, even stroking and touching your pregnant belly creates an environment of acceptance, calmness and unity. 

How sensitive is a newborn baby (up to 3/4 months) to touch and massage?

Newborn babies experience touch differently to us. A newborn baby’s nervous system is still underdeveloped hence they can be overly sensitive (tactile sensitive) or not sensitive at all (tactile dormant). A newborn baby is very receptive to input from all their senses but the senses of touch, smell and taste take pole position. Why? While the baby was in utero the uterine walls touched baby 24/7 and baby could smell and taste the amniotic fluid 24/7, baby was literally submerged in moms touch, smell and taste for 9 months. Once born, baby relies on the same 3 senses to find mom and settle so that latching, feeding and sleeping happens spontaneously.

How does touch stimulate a baby?

Supportive or firm touch is calming to baby, it reaffirms that he or she is not alone. Compare the cramped space in utero to the vast space outside mom’s body and it is easy to understand how baby easily feels abandoned or alone without touch. 

Firm loving touch or massage helps baby to create a body map in the brain, because the brain can only use, move and develop what the brain is aware of. Through massage the brain learns what the body looks like, and the more accurate the body map, the better the brain and body develops.

Massage leads to a state of relaxed alertness, the optimal state to adapt to life outside the womb. Being relaxed and aware is the ideal circumstances for the central nervous system to mature so a baby is not overwhelmed and hyperactive nor switched off, floppy and passive.

Why is a baby’s experience of touch (such as tickling of the toes) different to ours?
  • The toes are a long way away from the brain, in fact, the longest nerve in the body is between the brain and the big toe. The nerves from the brain to the hands are shorter, hence baby grasps long before baby can stand. 
  • Some babies avoid touch due to a tricky birth or ongoing painful medical procedures. They avoid touch because they start to associate touch with pain – which compromises feeding and sleeping because feeding without touch is very difficult. Other babies love to touch and simply cannot get enough of it; they seek touch, feed and digest easily which also makes sleeping more restful. 
  • An adult can think about touch sensations i.e. ‘I don’t like receiving an injection, but I know I need it’ and make sense of what they are feeling. A baby can’t think rationally, they simply react – either towards or away from touch.
How does a baby benefit from contact?  
  • Skin contact
  • Relaxes and calms baby
  • Reaffirms that baby is not alone
  • Secretes feel-good hormones that aid emotional development and boosts immunity
  • Naturally invites eye contact and bonding
  • Helps the baby to seek touch and not avoid touch so that when the baby is older, baby reaches out and makes friends spontaneously
Click here to get some massage routines.