Early Touch Is Vital For Your Baby’s Brain Development, Study Finds

Early Touch Is Vital For Your Baby’s Brain Development, Study Finds

Few things in life are more enjoyable than snuggling your newborn baby.

Perhaps for good reason as research shows your gentle touch have the power to impact your baby’s brain.

Early gentle touch has a way of conditioning your baby’s brain to respond to affection.

Early Touch Is Vital For Your Baby’s Brain Development, Study Finds

Which is important because how we respond to affection impacts many areas of our life.

According to this research, early touch can impact how our brains develop, and how they process stimuli.

Newborns experience the world through touch. Researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, measured the brain responses of 125 infants (including those born prematurely and full-term) and found that a baby’s earliest experiences of touch matter.

The more you hug, cuddle and expose your newborn to gentle touches, the more their brain grows according to this research.

How Does Early Touch Impact The Brain?

Human infants are born when their brain and neurological system still have quite a bit of maturing to do. This is especially noticed in infants born prematurely.

Early touch and physical reassurance are important in helping babies achieve normal sensory development. When infants experience a gentle touch, there should be a brain response.

What the researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found was some babies had less response to gentle touch. Infants born prematurely were more likely to have less response to gentle touch than full-term infants.

Researchers believe this may be due to their earliest touches being medical procedures rather than gentle touches.

Nathalie Maitre, of Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said “Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother’s womb.

“When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting.”

When an infant is born prematurely, they’re typically whisked away for care and parents may not be able to see or touch their baby for some hours, even days.

By contrast, a baby born full-term is often met with immediate skin-to-skin contact. These days, many facilities are encouraging rooming in, giving plenty of opportunity for parents to expose their newborn to nurturing touch from birth.

Can You Really Measure Differences In Infants’ Brains?

It isn’t all that surprising to think experiencing a rough and early transition from womb to world could have an impact on a developing brain.

However, when we’re able to measure differences, understand correlations, potential or known causes, and the short and long-term impact of factors, it helps us better understand how to care for babies.

Also, if touch can have a drastic impact on the brain of babies experiencing a traumatic start, how much benefit can it have on a child with a gentle start? Just imagine the benefit when a brain is already developing with an optimal start!

The researchers looked at the 125 babies born preterm from 24 to 36 weeks and full-term infants born at 38 to 42 weeks. Before discharge from the hospital, they used a soft EEG net to measure the babies’ brain responses to a puff of air compared to a ‘fake’ puff.

As mentioned above, the results showed the premature babies were more likely to have a reduced brain response to the gentle touch.

Further analysis of the results showed the brain response to touch was stronger in premature babies when their NICU stay involved more time in gentle contact with their parents or healthcare providers.

In the simplest words, yes, researchers were able to measure differences in the brain. And those differences were impacted by a newborn’s exposure to gentle touch.

In the words of the researchers: “Our results shed crucial insights into the mechanisms through which common early perinatal experiences may shape the somatosensory scaffolding of later perceptual, cognitive, and social development.”

What Does This Information Mean For Parents?

If you have or are at risk for having a premature baby, a baby with medical complications, or if your older child needs medical care, you have the power to help them with positive touch.

If you have a full-term and healthy infant, you still have the power to impact their brain and development with positive touch. The more gentle and nurturing contact you have with your newborn, the more you can aid in their sensory development.

This early brain development will impact their future learning and social development. It’s nothing short of vital to cuddle your babies!

As the mother of a premature infant, one who required medical procedures and surgeries, this information can feel both positive and negative.

It isn’t nice to hear your child’s start can have a negative impact on their brain. However, it’s very positive to hear that as a parent I have the power to reduce the negative effects of a rough start.

By practicing kangaroo care in the NICU as often as possible, I was able to help her brain learn to respond to touch the way it is meant to. I was able to help create a positive association with touch and ensure she wasn’t only feeling discomfort or pain.

While we can’t fully recreate the womb or the initial perinatal period of a full-term healthy newborn for premature babies, we can do our best to help with developing proper sensory integration.

For parents with babies or even older children who have or will need to undergo medical procedures, take comfort in the fact that your touch is healing, powerful and it can help counteract some of the sensory effects of early procedures.

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

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