The Athlete's Way

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Early Loving Touch Makes a Lifetime of Difference for a Baby

Skin-to-skin contact between a mother and premature baby is essential.

I have written numerous Psychology Today blog posts emphasizing that loving touch and human contact with babies is essential for healthy physical and psychological development. Unfortunately, the negative ramifications of not receiving physical affection and skin-to-skin contact in early life has become an epidemic with infants around the world—and in America.

This blog is, in many ways, an update to a recent Psychology Today post I wrote titled “Maternal Care in Early Life Boosts Resilience into Adulthood.” The findings of this new study directly support earlier research on the importance of early postnatal-mother bonding that I presented on December 17, 2013.

In the most recent study, Dr. Ruth Feldman, a Professor at Bar-Ilan University, and her colleagues researched the impact of different levels of physical contact on prematurely born infants. The new study titled "Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life" was published on January 6, 2014 in Biological Psychiatry.

"In this decade-long study, we show for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children's functioning ten years later in systems shown to be sensitive to early maternal deprivation in animal research," said Feldman.

Kangaroo Care Benefits All Babies

The researchers compared standard incubator care to a newer intervention called "Kangaroo Care" (KC), which was originally developed to manage the risk for hypothermia in prematurely born babies in Columbia, where there is a shortage of incubators. This method, in essence, uses the mother's body heat to keep their babies warm.

Kangaroo care has become increasingly popular for newborn infants, especially preterm or low birth weight. During KC an infant is held skin-to-skin against the chest of an adult, usually one of the parents. Ideally, kangaroo care begins immediately after birth and continues for as often as possible during postnatal development. Any short periods of KC time are also beneficial to babies and parents on a variety of levels—especially during the first 28 days of life.

The researchers asked 73 mothers to provide skin-to-skin contact (KC) to their premature infants in the neonatal unit for one hour daily for 14 consecutive days. For comparison, the researchers also assessed 73 premature infants who received standard incubator care. Children were then followed seven times across the first ten years of life.

The researchers found that during the first six months, mothers in the KC group were behaving with more sensitivity and seemed to automatically express stronger maternal behavior toward their infants. Children in the KC group showed better cognitive skills and executive abilities in repeated testing from those first six months and for the next ten years.

At ten years of age, the children who had received skin-to-skin (KC) maternal contact as infants were healthier across the board showing: 

  1. More regular sleep patterns
  2. Better neuroendocrine response to stress
  3. More mature functioning of the autonomic nervous system
  4. Better overall cognitive control

"This study reminds us once again of the profound long-term consequences of maternal contact," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "The enhanced level of stimulation provided by this contact seems to positively influence the development of the brain and to deepen the relationship between mother and child."

Conclusion: Early Loving Touch Has Long-Term Health Benefits

According to the researchers, premature birth is a major health concern worldwide, with approximately 12% of infants born prematurely in industrial societies and significantly more in developing countries. They say that while modern medicine has substantially increased the number of surviving premature infants, many suffer long-term cognitive difficulties and problems in neurobiological systems that support stress regulation and the organization of arousal and attention.

Feldman concludes, "Kangaroo Care is an easy-to-apply intervention with minimal cost and its multi-dimensional long-term impact on child development calls to integrate this intervention in the care-practices of premature infants across the world."

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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