The power of positive touch

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The power of touch

One of my baby massage groups has now finished and one of our final discussions was on the benefits of positive touch. Throughout the course, we had talked about the benefits of massage for both babies and parents but this discussion was more about the powerful effects of positive touch.

There is a lot of medical and scientific research around, which clearly demonstrates how our early experiences can have a lifelong impact on our physical and mental health. Depression, anxiety, behavioural and emotional difficulties have all been linked to early life experiences.

A healthy and secure relationship with a parent or primary care giver is now recognised as one of the essential building blocks of mental health and caring touch is one of the critical factors in this relationship.

A recent study published in ‘Development and Psychopathology’ states that babies who aren’t held enough are genetically underdeveloped. 94 infants were monitored from five weeks after birth to age 4 ½ by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Parents were asked to keep a diary of how often they were in bodily contact with their babies, as well as noting their baby’s behaviours such as sleeping, fussing, crying or feeding.

The researchers took DNA samples from the children at age 4 ½. Those who were held less often and, therefore, distressed more often, were under-developed on a molecular level. The children who received less physical contact had an ‘epigenetic age’ that was lower than their actual age, which has been linked to poor health in other studies.

This lack of nurturing touch in infants can also be directly linked to social and relationship difficulties, including violent behaviour, in later life.

It makes sense when you consider that the skin is the largest organ of our body and it is also our most important primary connection to the world. Touch is the first sense to develop while we’re in the womb and is the last sense to leave us before we die.

Anthropologist, Dr Ashley Montague, wrote that human beings cannot survive without touch. It is a basic behavioural need; without touch the human infant will surely die. With healthy touch, the human infant will not only survive but thrive.

When we teach baby massage, we teach parents to respect their babies by listening to them and watching them to learn their cues. When a baby is respected and allowed to become open to positive touch at their own pace and rhythm, they eventually relax. This can simply be a loving hold, or resting hands anywhere on the body that is okay with the baby.

Positive touch also enhances the verbal messages that you give to your baby. Talking to your baby while you’re giving a massage can greatly influence language learning, but it also provides an extra layer of connection.

The skin is connected to thousands of nerves and our sense of touch is designed to communicate clearly, quickly and subconsciously. Think about what happens if you touch something hot – before you’ve had time to think about it, you pull away immediately, understanding that this could be dangerous. Touch is a visceral, instinctive form of communication. When you tell someone that you love them, or that they’ve done a good job, you increase the importance of the message when you touch them at the same time; holding their hand, squeezing their shoulder, giving them a pat on the back. 

By talking or singing to your baby as you massage them, you are enabling the positive, positive brain connections to be formed that they need to develop fully and healthily. That’s the power of positive touch!