How Important Is Physical Contact with Your Infant? (2023)

The stark institutional isolation prevalent in the orphanages of some countries might have mostly melted away decades ago, but many babies and young children all over the world still grow up in environments where touch and emotional engagement are lacking. Many children who have not had ample physical and emotional attention are at higher risk for behavioral, emotional and social problems as they grow up.

These trends point to the lasting effects of early infancy environments and the changes that the brain undergoes during that period. Below the surface, some children from deprived surroundings such as orphanages, have vastly different hormone levels than their parent-raised peers even beyond the baby years. For instance, in Romania in the 1980s, by ages six to 12, levels of the stress hormone cortisol were still much higher in children who had lived in orphanages for more than eight months than in those who were adopted at or before the age of four months, according to a study from Development and Psychopathology. Other work has shown that children who experienced early deprivation also had different levels of oxytocin and vasopressin (hormones that have been linked to emotion and social bonding), despite having had an average of three years in a family home. "This environmental change [into a home] does not seem to have completely overridden all of the effects of early neglect," the researchers, led by Alison Wismer Fries of the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison noted in their study, published in 2005 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Video) The Importance of Touch - How to Help Your Baby Feel Relaxed and Secure

Myriad biological and environmental factors shape development and can be difficult to tease apart in scientific studies of children, who all have different genetic predispositions and experiences. But many stories of delayed development and troublesome behavior, such as in the seven-year-old Russian orphan who was returned by his adoptive family in the U.S. in April 2010, have spurred researchers to take an even closer look into the effects of early contact deprivation.

On the flip side, researchers have been discovering how emphasizing skin-to-skin contact between baby and parent can be a boon to both and how consistent emotional engagement with infants can speed their development and recognition of self.

What is so special about these basic behaviors that come without thinking to most parents? We spoke with Ann Bigelow, a professor and researcher of developmental psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, whose lab has been conducting research into parent behavior and infant development.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

We have known for a long time that skin-to-skin contact with babies is important for their development. In what ways does it help them?
Particularly in the newborn period, it helps calm babies: they cry less and it helps them sleep better. There are some studies that show their brain development is facilitated—probably because they are calmer and sleep better.

(Video) How Important Is Physical Contact with Your Infant?

Does skin-to-skin contact with their babies have benefits for the parents?
It seems to help the mothers, too. It reduces their stress level—they report lower levels of depression, they seem to be able to be more sensitive to their baby's cues and the babies are more responsive to the mother through the whole first three months. They're recognizing their mother earlier, so the relationship between the mother and baby is off to a facilitated start. It works the same way with fathers, too.

There is some interesting work showing that mothers who have just given birth, their skin area on their chest is a degree or two higher than the rest of their body, creating a natural warming area for the newborn. They have the ability to thermoregulate for the baby—if the baby's temperature drops, the mother's temperature rises, and if the baby's temperature rises, the mother's drops. There seems to be a connection between mother and baby from the birthing process itself.

What is happening in the body—of both parent and child—when there is skin-to-skin contact?
From the mother's perspective, it probably releases oxytocin. On the behavioral level, if you have a baby that is more relaxed and sleeping better, that's going to relax the mother more.

The newborn is coming out of a very restrictive environment, so anything that simulates that comforts them. Being touched or hearing a heartbeat is familiar because they heard it in the womb.

Aside from contact, what are some of the other early interactions between adults and infants that are important for development?
One of the things infants learn early in life is that their actions affect others' responses—they sense that they're active agents in their environment, so the world isn't just a sound and light show. They learn that probably most readily through other people because people are responsive to babies. Babies catch on very quickly that their actions get a predictable response—you know, "I smile, Mom smiles back"—not all the time but most of the time. They develop a sense that "I'm a causal agent."

(Video) Ask an expert: Physical touch and babies | EveryParentPBC.org

There's research that shows babies like to be imitated. We interact with babies much differently than we interact with peers. We tend to imitate behavior back to them in an exaggerated way, which is exactly what babies need, and it helps them learn about their own emotional experience. Seeing it reflected back helps them understand themselves at a very basic perceptual understanding.

And do infants with mothers who are quick to imitate develop more rapidly?
Yes, and that seems to be independent of how talkative mothers are or how smiley mothers are. I think there's probably an upper limit to it. If you're just doing everything the baby does, that could be irritating, just as it would be to anyone else. Most of this stuff is done outside of the mother's awareness—this is just what they do naturally when they are playing with their baby.

At what age do babies start to recognize that they are active agents?

Babies can recognize that "you're imitating me," some say, within the first few hours. Certainly by four months, babies will respond differently if responses from mothers are a reflection of what they're currently doing.

It may also depend how responsive the mother—or the partner that the baby has experience with—is to the baby. If the mother was depressed and therefore not emotionally engaging with the baby, those babies are at risk because those babies are not learning about themselves.

Babies get used to the one person that's most familiar, so if you're with a depressed mother who has low responsiveness, those babies will be most responsive to those who are least responsive, so they're perpetuating a risk factor for themselves. There's nothing wrong with the baby; they're just responding to what they're experiencing.

A lot of these outcomes are measured by early developmental progress—do some of these differences eventually even themselves out?
For many, yes. But of course it's easier if they start out on the right track than if they have to be rectified.

(Video) The Power of a Parent's Touch

The more experience babies have with someone who is going to be emotionally engaged with them, the better off they're going to be. But babies are incredibly flexible and adaptable. It's probably the most adaptable point in our lives, which is a good thing because things can turn around.

Is there an age where skin-to-skin contact and other interactions lose some of their importance for early development?
In certain countries, skin-to-skin contact is standard care for babies, and the babies will determine when they have had enough because theywill start to have an interest in other things.

Much has been made of children from orphanages, who might have missed out on a lot of the personalized physical and emotional engagement during their infancy. Does this really have long-term effects?
There's been some interesting work done with children who have been adopted from Romania, where there wasn't a lot of individual attention. In Romania, at least initially after the country opened up [in 1989], there were few adults to many children, and they were also separated by age, so the children weren't interacting with one another as much. After they were adopted into Canadian homes, the longer they had been in the orphanage, the more likely they were to have longer-term deficits. But even if they had been in orphanages for a long time, going into a family environment was beneficial. Most of the kids ended up being okay. Some took longer than others to be okay, and some had long-term deficits.

What are some of the long-term deficits that are common in some of these children?
There are some cognitive deficits initially, and there are some emotional differences. Some have found that children from Romania have indiscriminant friendliness—they're more likely to go off with strangers. It's almost as if they think "all adults are wonderful," and they don't have the sense "there are particular adults that are mine."

What can or should be done for children who are coming from an environment where they might not have gotten much physical touching or emotional engagement?
The main thing would be to give them what they didn't get.

(Video) Human Touch - Human Touch And Health - Importance Of Physical Contact

What else should we know about the role of infant engagement in development?
It's not that anything is cut in stone. I don't want to give the impression that if babies don't get this they're marked for life. This early understanding of self and early understanding of other is developed through interaction. It teaches babies basic lessons that they have some agency in the world, so that allows them to explore the world and feel like they can affect their environment as opposed to just being helpless to whatever happens to them. We're basically a social species, and we learn those things through interacting with others.

FAQs

How important is physical contact with your infant? ›

Skin-to-skin time in the first hour after birth helps regulate the babies' temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and helps them cry less. It also increases mothers' relaxation hormones. For babies, the nine months of pregnancy may feel like one long, loving embrace.

How important is human contact in infant development? ›

Touch not only impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood, but also has long-term effects, suggesting the power of positive, gentle touch from birth. Through this contact, newborns are able to learn about their world, bond with their caregiver, and communicate their needs and wants.

Why is it important to interact with infants? ›

Talking to your baby is an important way to help him/her grow. It promotes communication and language development. It also supports social and emotional development. Even before your baby starts to talk, he/she communicates with you through facial expressions, body language and crying.

What are the physical needs of an infant? ›

A young child's basic needs, or physical needs, include:
  • Food (nutritious and age-appropriate)
  • Shelter (protection from harm)
  • Warmth.
  • Clean air and environment.
  • Health and dental care.
  • Activity and rest.

Why is physical contact so important? ›

Touch can strongly transmit a sense of being accepted and cared for — the emotional benefits. Touch also confers physiological benefits. In one study, partners were found to have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, on days when they enjoyed higher levels of physical touch like hand holding or hugging.

What are the benefits of physical contact? ›

There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body's vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.”

What is the importance of communicating and interacting with infants and toddlers? ›

From birth, warm, gentle and responsive communication helps babies and children feel safe and secure in their worlds. It also builds and strengthens relationships between children and their parents and carers.

How do you interact with an infant? ›

What are some fun ways to interact with your baby in the early months?
  1. Offer interesting objects for your baby to look at. ...
  2. Place your baby so that she can kick or hit at a mobile or rattle. ...
  3. Make everyday routines playful. ...
  4. Share books together. ...
  5. Offer interesting objects to touch.

What are the most important influences on a infant? ›

Children's early experiences and relationships in the first five years of life are critical for development. In the early years, your child's main way of learning and developing is through play. Other influences on development include genes, nutrition, physical activity, health and community.

Why are physical needs important for children? ›



Exercise helps your child build stronger muscles and bones acting as a stimulus for the body to adapt to. Developing a good physical foundation from a young age includes healthy bone mass and density, which will reduce the risk of developing bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis later on in life.

How do you give an infant physical care? ›

Physical care routines include the following:
  1. nappy changing/going to the toilet.
  2. hand washing.
  3. oral care.
  4. skin care (including the skin around the nappy)
  5. opportunities for rest, quiet time or sleep.
  6. appropriate provision for exposure to sunlight and low temperatures.

Do infants need physical contact for social development? ›

Many children who have not had ample physical and emotional attention are at higher risk for behavioral, emotional and social problems as they grow up. These trends point to the lasting effects of early infancy environments and the changes that the brain undergoes during that period.

What can happen to babies who are not touched enough? ›

Touch is essential for human survival; babies who are deprived of touch can fail to thrive, lose weight and even die. Babies and young children who do not get touched also have lower levels of growth hormone, so a lack of touch can actually stunt a child's growth.

Do babies need body contact? ›

There is a growing body of evidence that skin-to-skin contact after the birth helps babies and their mothers. The practice: calms and relaxes both mother and baby. regulates the baby's heart rate and breathing, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb.

Why is touch the most important? ›

Our sense of touch allows us to receive information about our internal and external environments, making it important for sensory perception. Our sense of touch allows us to receive information about our internal and external environments, making it important for sensory perception.

Is physical contact necessary? ›

From the time we are in the womb through our elderly years, touch plays a primary role in our development and physical and mental well-being. New studies on touch continue to show the importance of physical contact in early development, communication, personal relationships, and fighting disease.

Whats the meaning of physical contact? ›

Physical contact means person-to-person touching or the use of a device or prop to touch another person (e.g., a paint brush).

What is an example of physical contact? ›

It is an act or reaction, such as an expression of feelings (including close friendship, platonic love, romantic love or sexual attraction), between people. Examples of physical intimacy include being inside someone's personal space, holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing and sexual activity.

What is a good way to encourage an infant to communicate? ›

Listen and respond to your child's sounds and words, including cooing and babbling. Imitate her sounds or words and add to them. Introduce vocabulary words during new routines and outings. You're teaching back-and-forth conversation skills.

What learning is the most important for infants and toddlers? ›

Family-Child Relationships

Through relationships, infants and toddlers learn about their environment and how to interact with the world around them. The relationships infants and toddlers have with their families are the most important in shaping emotional and social development.

What are the benefits of interacting with children? ›

Social interaction from an early age is a key factor in learning to speak effectively for clear communication. Through communication with others at places like child care, kids also gain a sense of self and learn to identify as individuals, which is a normal part of the developmental process for toddlers.

How much should you interact with your baby? ›

Even young infants just a few days old should get two or three tummy time play sessions per day, each lasting three to five minutes. Playing doesn't have to mean entertaining your baby with toys all day long.

Which is a way to bond with an infant? ›

Bonding and attachment happen when you consistently respond to newborns with love, warmth and care. Newborns use body language to show when they want to connect with you. Good ways to bond with newborns include smiling, eye contact, singing, reading and cuddling.

How do you hold and support an infant and child? ›

Shoulder hold and safety tips

Shoulder hold: rest baby on your chest and shoulder, supporting baby's head and neck with your hand. Place your other hand under baby's bottom. Keep your baby safe: never hold hot drinks or cook while you're holding baby. Always hold baby securely when going up or down steps.

What is the most important part of infant development? ›

Family is almost certainly the most important factor in child development. In early childhood especially, parents are the ones who spend the most time with their children and we (sometimes unwittingly) influence the way they act and think and behave.

What is physical development in infants? ›

Physical development is one domain of infant and toddler development. It relates to changes, growth and skill development with the body, including development of muscles and senses. This lesson will introduce developmental milestones in addition to influences on early physical growth and development.

What is the most important things in infancy stage? ›

Listening, understanding, and knowing the names of people and things are all a part of language development. During this stage, babies also are developing bonds of love and trust with their parents and others as part of social and emotional development.

What are the benefits of physical development for children? ›

Importance of Physical Activity for Children

Children who are physically active are more likely to stay at a healthy weight, sleep better, maintain strong bones, and reduce the risk of obesity-related diseases. Children who are physically active also have more opportunities to develop muscle strength and endurance.

Why is physical development the most important? ›

Physical development is an important component in young children because it helps with bone growth, muscle strength and control, development of motor skills and coordination.

Why is physical development important in child development? ›

Preschool children's motor abilities develop as a result of physical development. As their bodies mature, children progressively strengthen their muscles and are able to better control their bodies. Skill mastery and development, however, are also the result of brain growth and development.

What can you do to support infants physical development? ›

Encourage the increasing coordination of physical movements as the infant reaches, grabs, and transfers things from one hand to the other. Allow the infant to explore freely on a clean, safe floor. Encourage creeping and crawling. Support the infant in an upright position to encourage balance and strength development.

How do you support children with their physical care? ›

Supporting children's physical care practices includes the following support.
  1. Toileting. Toileting should be treated with respect. ...
  2. Washing hands. ...
  3. Skincare. ...
  4. Hair care. ...
  5. Mouth/oral care. ...
  6. Opportunities for rest, quiet time or sleep. ...
  7. Protection from the sun and cold. ...
  8. Caring for the nappy area.

How do you support a child's physical development? ›

Supporting Children's Physical Development
  1. Providing children with opportunities for free movement.
  2. Engaging children in both open-ended and teacher-directed indoor and outdoor motor play.
  3. Challenging children with developmentally appropriate fine and gross motor tasks.

What happens if you don't interact with your baby? ›

Not speaking with your children means their vocabularies will be smaller. Not conversing with your children also means that you're spending less time paying attention to and interacting with them. When that happens, it can be difficult to develop a strong bond with your baby.

What happens if babies dont get touched? ›

Touch is essential for human survival; babies who are deprived of touch can fail to thrive, lose weight and even die. Babies and young children who do not get touched also have lower levels of growth hormone, so a lack of touch can actually stunt a child's growth.

Do babies need body contact? ›

There is a growing body of evidence that skin-to-skin contact after the birth helps babies and their mothers. The practice: calms and relaxes both mother and baby. regulates the baby's heart rate and breathing, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb.

Do infants need physical contact for social development? ›

Many children who have not had ample physical and emotional attention are at higher risk for behavioral, emotional and social problems as they grow up. These trends point to the lasting effects of early infancy environments and the changes that the brain undergoes during that period.

How does lack of affection affect a child? ›

On the other hand, children who do not have affectionate parents tend to have lower self esteem and to feel more alienated, hostile, aggressive, and anti-social. There have been a number of recent studies that highlight the relationship between parental affection and children's happiness and success.

How does lack of touch affect development? ›

Researchers have found the following negative consequences for lack of touch: Higher risk for sensory processing disorders, such as oversensitivity. Increased likelihood of autism spectrum disorder. Impaired growth and cognitive development.

Do babies need physical touch to survive? ›

Physical contact with babies is essential for their physical and psychological development. In the absence of touch stimulation, release of important growth hormones may be inhibited in all parts of the body as well as the brain, liver and heart.

How do you know you are touch starved? ›

Touch starvation is a condition that happens when you don't get as much physical touch as you're used to -- or any at all. You crave contact but can't interact with others for some reason. It's also known as touch deprivation or skin hunger.

Can infants have sense of touch? ›

Your baby's sense of touch begins to develop when he's still in the womb—around week 7. As soon as he's born, your little one starts learning about himself and the world through his ultra-sensitive tactile sense. That's why holding him skin-to-skin or giving him a massage is so powerful.

Why is social touch important? ›

Social touch is a powerful force in human development, shaping social reward, attachment, cognitive, communication, and emotional regulation from infancy and throughout life.

Why is contact comfort important in development? ›

Contact comfort is believed to be the foundation for attachment. The Harlows' studies confirmed that babies have social as well as physical needs. Both monkeys and human babies need a secure base that allows them to feel safe.

What is the most important social construct an infant must develop? ›

A strong connection between an infant and their family makes them feel safe and secure. This provides a solid foundation for infants to build social relationships with others and helps to develop their trust in others. Physical love plays a large part in an infant's social and emotional development too.

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4. The role of attachment in infancy on later mental and physical health outcomes
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