Babies Need Touch

By Dr. Cynthia Horner

Babies learn about their world by touching objects, but they learn about people by the way we touch them.

We can live without sight, hearing, smell or taste, but without touch we die. Touch throughout life is not a luxury but a necessity. Touch starts not at birth but in utero.Baby touch

Pregnant women touch and stroke their bellies and move amniotic fluid that brushes and caresses their baby, this stimulates growth. Then the strong contractions of the birthing process stimulate peripheral sensory nerves in the skin that send messages to the brain, the brain responds to these messages by kicking up the autonomic nervous system to the breathing centers and gastro-intestinal centers. The autonomic nervous system is stimulated after birth through touching, stroking and hugs. A section 2 inches by 2 inches of a baby’s skin has: 300 cells, 100 sweat glands, 50 nerve endings and 3 feet of blood vessels. Skin is a baby’s connection to the world.

Labor contractions are needed to stimulate the nervous system 

Mammals other than humans lick their young immediately after birth. At one time it was thought that the mother was cleaning her young, but is now recognized that the mother is innately activating the autonomic nervous system to stimulate their young’s respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems through skin receptors. Babies that are taken from their mothers immediately after birth are at a developmental disadvantage because they miss out on their mother’s touch. Studies show babies born with C-section or premature births have an increase in respiratory and gastro disorders (1)  because the contractions of labor are needed to stimulate the brain and nervous system. If the mother labored before the C-section many of the negative effects to the respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems are not experienced.  A friend of mine who attended many home births told me stories more than once of a mid-wife vigorously rubbing the back of a newborn who was not breathing with her open hand that resulted in the infant taking that big first breath.

Human babies are born un-done

Human infants are the only mammals we know that are born before completing their gestation. In other words we humans are born before we are finished developing; infants are dependent on their mothers for survival for 6 to 12 month after birth. This is thought to have developed because over time the human head has increased in size and if left to full gestation our babies’ heads would be too large to deliver, so human babies gestate 266 1/2  days in the womb and 266 ½ days out of the womb. This ‘out of the womb gestation’ is calculated from the time of birth until the time a baby crawls and is therefore able to be mobile and does not have to be carried.

The need for touch continues out of the womb and is provided by parents as a mother holds her baby skin to skin to breastfeed (breastfeeding is less about supplying food as it is about supplying comfort and security), carrying her baby in her arms or as an infant falls asleep on the bare chest of the father. Sleeping with a baby provides more opportunity for touch. Mothers are often observed kissing the head of their baby providing caressing and touch. Often infants in hospitals or daycare do not get adequate brain stimulation through touch. In Cambridge, England researchers found that preemies who slept on sheepskin gained half an ounce more a day than those sleeping on cotton sheets. (2) Touch stimulates the brain to understand the environment. As babies grow they learn about their world by touching objects, and they learn about the people in their world by the way we touch them.

Touch promotes security

Touch also signals the brain’s pleasure center to promote a sense of security, well-being and contentment necessary for survival and health. The world learned something very important from a Children’s Clinic in Germany in the early 9d13e8a872339477aa651d6b2eb22a1d1900’s. A fat, old woman known as Anna was a regular at the clinic. When the doctors had done all they could to help a sick infant or child they would then turn them over to old Anna, who would simply hold, stroke, rock, sing and talk to the infant, it was recorded that she was always successful in saving the babies. (3) What was missing in the sterile clinic environment was touch.

Touch and movement develops a baby’s brain

An infant’s brain at birth is 25% developed, with a hundred billion neurons (nerve cells).(4)  The neurons make many connections to other neurons while in utero. In the first years after birth the result is some hundred trillion connections are made by age three. Repeated stimuli strengthens or thickens these connections just like a dirt road that is used a lot will get paved and widened to allow more rapid travel. These connections will last for a lifetime unless a brain injury occurs. If the connections are not made at this time in life it is very difficult for them to ever be made. The right hemisphere has rapid growth before the left. Touch then later in the infant’s life movement is what for the most part wires the right hemisphere. Without adequate touch and movement this opportunity is lost. The practice of putting an infant in daycare often does not allow adequate touch and movement for optimal wiring of the right hemisphere leading to developmental delays throughout the child’s life. Faces are more important than images on a screen to an infant’s right brain. Functional MRI imaging has shown distinctly different parts of a baby’s brain light up when looking at a live human face than when looking at a human face on a screen. Touch has also been found to keep DNA synthesis and growth hormones active; babies need to be touched to grow into healthy, thinking, feeling humans,


(1) Touching the Human Significance of Skin   – Ashley Montagu   page 61 & page 63

(2)  The Magic of Touch  – Sherry Suib Cohen     page 28

(3) Touching the Human Significance of Skin   – Ashley Montagu   page 98

(4) Pathways to Family Wellness Magazine issue 44/winter 2014