Mother-infant positive physical contact has been documented to organize the infant’s systems and their development. In a new study with premature babies, brief positive physical contact influenced sleep patterns, brain development, self-control and stress reactivity. Research findings add to the conclusions that touch is vital for children's physiological organization and behavioral control.
Premature babies often have disadvantages due to interrupted brain and physiological development from an early womb exit, but also due to unusual separation from mother during early life.
Ruth Feldman and colleagues have shown the power of maternal touch for premature infants over the long term. For incubator babies, they used a brief but powerful intervention. They assigned one group of 73 mothers to hold the baby skin-to-skin for one hour per day for two weeks. A matched group of 73 mothers were not instructed to do this. Over ten years with seven encounters, they compared the development of the children in the skin-to-skin group (StS) versus those in the control group.
When comparing the groups, there were enhancements for StS mothers and children, and their relationship.
Mothers. The StS mothers were more responsive to their infants in the first months of life, with less anxiety and greater attachment-building behaviors.
Children. In the postpartum period, the StS children showed better autonomic functioning (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA) which is related to good health and social relational capacities (Porges, 2011). From 6 months to 10 years of age, the StS children showed greater cognitive development. At 10 years old, StS children were less stress-reactive, had more organized sleep, and greater cognitive control.
The relationship. The mother-child relationship was better –more reciprocal--for the Skin-to-Skin group.
Notice that it was one hour per day of skin-to-skin touching.
Animals studies have shown that short term physical separation from mother in the first week has longterm ill effects on multiple systems. For example, when piglets were separated for two hours a day from day 3 through day 11 of life, weeks later, effects were still noted in stress reactivity and immune function (Kanitz et al., 2004). In another study, piglets were weaned early at different ages. They were isolated before slaughter to induce stress. For all ages, isolation caused decreased gene expression in the frontal cortex.
Of course, these findings with what we know about mammalian babies—they rely on touch for their systems and relationships to grow well. The authors say in their abstract: “Results demonstrate the dynamic cascades of child physiological regulation and parental provisions in shaping developmental outcome.”
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Feldman R, Rosenthal Z, Eidelman AI. (2014). Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life.Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Jan 1;75(1):56-64. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012. Epub 2013 Oct 4.
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Porges, S. (2011). Polyvagal theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.