Your Baby and the 
Importance of Physical Touch

Quick Page Links

The Importance of Physical Touch

The importance of touch reaches many levels and not only for babies but for children, teenagers, adults and in old age as well.

The very survival of our species depends on it. Besides having physical needs for food, cleanliness, and shelter, we also have physical touch needs.

Think about this for a moment...

What is the first sense that develops in the womb?

The sense of touch.

What is the first language your baby understands after being born?

Touch and crying.

In the first few months after our babies are born, we communicate and answer their cries mainly through physical touch.

Unlike animals, our human babies are born not able to walk or move around on their own. Our senses of sight, smell, hearing, and taste only fully develop after birth. But our sense of touch develops while still in the womb.

In fact, at only 8 weeks gestation (when most women first realize they are pregnant), the fetus will move away from a probe's touch. This proves how essential and crucial physical contact is for our survival.

Although we do have many things in common with other mammals, human contact is the thing that makes us different, and that makes us... well... human.

How we fit in socially with others, mainly depends on our experience with touch.

Touch has the potential to heal or break down, nurture or abuse. Touching helps us to build relationships with one another.

Many of today's anti-social behavior could be reversed if we start to meet the touch needs in our children. Things like early sexual activity, violence, depression and eating disorders all stem from an unmet need for positive and loving touch.

No matter how big or small your child is, make sure you touch them lovingly and often. Give them a hug daily! You'll not only be doing your own family a favour but the whole world.

Did you know that touch deprivation can be just as damaging as harmful touch?

Touch can comfort us. Reassure us. Relax us. Even arouse us. Or it could make us very uneasy. Threaten us. Hurt us.

Touch-deprived children tend to be the more aggressive and violent ones. They lack the experience to discern whether or not touch is good or bad. 

It is also ironic that in our modern society there's a belief that we can spoil our babies by "holding them too much." If babies weren't supposed to be held a lot, they would not have been born unable to move around on their own until months after birth and would've been capable of providing for their own needs from birth.

Fact is, that the children who are held more turn into the well-adjusted, confident and loving adults, not the other way around.

Touch stimulates brain growth. How we are touched in the first few years of our lives, determine how we will cope as adults one day. By releasing "feel good' chemicals (endorphins) during the early years as a result of being touched lovingly, you will be able to cope much better later in life. But when those chemicals are not released, you will have a harder time coping.

A study on monkeys also proved this point. The ones who received the reassuring physical touch from their mothers explored new environments and situations with more curiosity and courage. The ones who didn't receive the reassuring touch couldn't cope and just collapse in screams of hysteria.

Positive touch helps you to cope!

When we comfort a crying baby or child, we naturally hold and cuddle them, rub their backs, gently rock or swing them, we even kiss them.

As a mother, you've probably come to know a little about the incredible hormone called oxytocin. This hormone is the one some refer to as the "love hormone." It's the antidote of the "fight-or-flight" response and instead creates a calm response. 

You might also know that it is released during orgasm while giving birth and during breastfeeding. But did you know it's also released when we are touched or doing the touching?

Receiving this positive kind of touch will:

  • Regulate a baby's breathing.
  • Improve circulation.
  • Aid in digestion and metabolism.
  • Boost the immune system and
  • Improve sleep.

(These things are especially evident in kangaroo mother care where premature babies are held skin to skin.)

When babies don't get this positive touch, their energy is used for supporting life functions, and these "finer" cellular functions take second place. This is where the survive versus thrive concept comes in. They still grow, but not to their full potential.

"Physical closeness brings about psychological closeness."

Bonding with your baby through touch starts long before your baby is even born.

While you are pregnant, you instinctively touch your belly often, rubbing it and feeling your baby move. During birth, contractions massage your baby. After the birth, you hold, kiss and caress your baby in a way that mimics the comfort and safety of the womb.

Even the mere act of breastfeeding brings along physical closeness. It's not just a means of nutrition. Breastfeeding benefits are plentiful! 

All these things build a sense of trust and security between a mother and baby. Babies learn that they are safe and loved. Mothers become confident and more responsive in taking care of their little bundles of joy. They form a secure attachment.

When you lovingly touch your baby, endorphins are released in the brain, which gives your baby a feeling of calm. The nerve endings relax, and your baby is able to unwind.

The benefits are not only for the one being touched, but they are also for the one doing the touching!

In hospitals where volunteers hold and massage babies for short stretches of time, they too experience less anxiety, less depression, their self-esteem improves and they even drink less coffee and don't have as many doctor's visits as those who don't do this!

For mothers, the main benefit is helping them get over the baby blues as well as assisting with the more serious postnatal depression.

The importance of touch is that it is literally vital for our survival!

We can learn to live without some of our other senses. People who are deaf or blind for example learn how to sharpen their other senses in order to survive. But you can not survive and live well without your sense of touch.

Breastfeeding my baby has made a difference

by Tracy 

(South Africa)

In my case, I can say that just breastfeeding my baby has made a difference in bonding with her. I believe that it was not just the hormones released during breastfeeding (oxytocin), but also just the fact that we touched each other a whole lot more (skin to skin contact) than what we would have if she were formula fed. I felt I had more of a connection with her from the start. 

With my first child, I tried to breastfeed but failed miserably... I also always felt detached from him. It actually took me a while to "feel" my love for him. 

Great info!

Handling and Holding your Baby

mommy with twins, physical touch, attachment parenting

Holding your baby might seem intimidating because they look so small. But once you know how, you'll become more confident and enjoy holding your precious baby!  

It's important to remember that you need to be confident when handling them, as they pick up on your feelings. Don't be scared.

Use a firm but gentle 'grip,' this way they will feel safe.

It's also important to remember that you need to support their heads, necks and spines well, especially those babies who have not yet learned head control. Babies heads are the heaviest parts of their bodies - a quarter of their body weight - so it takes time for the neck muscles to strengthen.

The How-to of Picking Up a Newborn/Small Baby

  • As your baby is lying down, slide your (preferably dominant) hand in under their heads/necks and the other (preferably non-dominant) hand under your baby's hips and bottom.
  • Spread your fingers to give proper and full support.
  • Slowly bring your baby up close to your body.

The How-to of Picking Up an Older Baby

  • Older babies are strong and have good head/neck control; they are able to keep their bodies straight.
  • Pick them up by placing your hands under their arms and lifting them with your hands around their chest.
  • There's no need for you to support their heads/necks and whole bodies anymore.

Newborn Reflexes

The Moro Reflex Demonstrated

Newborn babies who aren't supported well while being picked up or put down will startle, this is because of the Moro Reflex, sometimes referred to as the startle reflex. They will flay out both arms and legs and give a short cry. Sudden movements might also give the sensation of falling, and you don't want your baby to experience this.

When lifting your baby up or putting them down, keep their heads higher than their bottoms.

It probably sounds a bit silly, but this is something I was made aware of after having my twincesses. I realized that many of the times they woke up just as I lay them down, was because I tended to put them down head lower since I had to bend down to put them in their low cot. It's one of those things many people do without even thinking of, and no one tells you about it either...

Well I'm telling you now


Holding Baby in Different Ways

daddy holding babySoothing hold
  • Soothing Hold: One of our favorites that always soothed a fussy baby was this hold. It's a great position to gently rub out winds and the pressure on a baby's tummy while having good head support, it's a winning combination. It's pretty comfortable for you too! I carried my babies like this most of the time - one baby at a time though - and still had one hand free to do whatever was necessary.
  • Cradle Hold: This is the most popular hold for newborns. The baby lies with their head in the crook of your arm, well supported, and your hand (of the same arm) supports their bottom and upper leg. It's the perfect distance away from your face so your baby can see you clearly. 
mother in hospitalCradle hold
    Babies see clearly between about 8-15 inches/ 20-35cm away. It's also close to your heart, so they are comforted by the sound they were used to hearing most in the womb. An interesting fact is that most mothers instinctively hold their babies to the left because that's where they are literally closest to their hearts. It's a good idea to switch sides from time to time, to ensure equal body development on both sides for the baby.
  • Hip Hold: This is mostly used for holding older babies who have gained more body control and strength.
mother and childrenHip hold

The hip that your baby sits on depends on your dominant hand, you'll usually prefer carrying them on the opposite hip so that you have your hand free to do other things if needed. It's also better to keep your supporting hand on your baby's upper leg/bottom, with your arm diagonally across their back.

  • Upright Hold: This hold is most popular for winding a baby. It can either be soothing - great for a baby to rest their head against you and drift off to sleep after bringing up that wind or Stimulating - when you carry them high enough to peek over your shoulder to have a view of the world. Be sure to wear a burp cloth with this position, especially if your baby spits up a lot. 
breastfeeding supportUpright hold

Tip: Place your baby against the opposite shoulder of your dominant hand. You can support your baby's head/neck best with your dominant hand, but as they gain head control, you'll have your hand free to do other things if need be. Just be careful that they don't arch their backs and fall. Always keep a gentle, but firm grip with your non-dominant hand on their bottom and/or across their back.

  • Forward Facing Hold: This hold is for older babies with good head/neck control and body strength. 
family with twinsForward facing hold

Holding your baby this way will be stimulating, as the baby will have a full view of the world around them. It requires two hands on your part, one under your baby's bottom and one across their tummy to prevent them from jerking forward and falling out of your arms. 

  • Lap Hold: This is great for interacting with your newborn or small baby. As you sit on a chair or couch with your feet flat on the ground and legs together, lay your baby down on your lap with their head at your knee and their feet against your body. Depending on your baby's length, you might have to put their legs up against your tummy, or just bend their legs slightly. 
mom and babyLap hold

Holding your baby in this position provides an opportunity to interact lovingly. Smile, talk softly or sing to your baby. It's great for bonding and getting to know each other.

  • Twins: Daddy has mastered the art of holding his Twincesses, even soothing one while interacting with the other. 
daddy with twin babiesHolding twins
    Once you've tried it, you'll see that holding your baby really isn't that scary after all. And you'll also quickly learn which positions your baby prefers and dislikes. 

You can nurture your baby through physical touch by holding your baby, the most essential and fundamental part of baby care!

Learn more about the benefits of Baby Wearing practices here.

Breastfeeding and the Role of Baby's Hands

mommy breastfeeding

While breastfeeding, babies get their hands all over the show. There is new research that shows there are actually valid reasons behind this behavior.

Mother's were always taught to swaddle babies or tuck their hands and arms in under themselves so that the baby's hands won't get in the way of feeding.

But not anymore. A baby's hands play an important role in facilitating breastfeeding.

Every baby is born with feeding instincts. In fact, these instincts start in utero (in the womb) even before birth!

On ultrasounds, you will notice that babies often bring their hands to their faces before swallowing amniotic fluid. It is all part of a feeding pattern that develops and later on, you'll find that babies bring their hands to their faces when hungry.

Since a baby's sense of sight is not yet fully developed, babies have to use all their other senses to find the nipple to feed. They will smell your milk and then use their hands to locate the exact position of the breast if their faces are not close to or on the breast.

Those little hands will also help the mother release oxytocin, which is the all-important hormone for producing breast milk. It causes the mother's nipple to become erect, which allows the baby to see and feel it better, and in turn, helps the baby to latch on properly.

Then there's the pulling, pushing and shaping of the breast. Babies are guiding the breast to get the nipple into their mouths. And if you think they are blocking the nipple when placing their hands over the nipple and sucking on their hands, think again. The baby is locating the exact position of the nipple and will move their hand away to feed on that same spot.

At times, the baby may also suck on his/her hands to calm down and relax before feeding. So try not to discourage it so much.

If you have sore, sensitive or cracked nipples and the thought of those wandering hands make you cringe, just position your baby's face closer to your breast and guide your baby to hug the breast instead of fondling.

mother breastfeeding

So why didn't we realize this earlier?

Well, mostly because of the way we hold our babies to nurse.

Once you use what's known as the "laid back position" (a semi-reclined position) and allow your baby to position themselves, you'll notice that these hand movements are in reality more massage-like movements and the baby is better able to shape, pull and position the breast when lying in this position.

Even the head bopping in tiny babies is done to get the latch just right.

Join us facebook breastfeeding page