Recently, many hospitals have started to emphasize skin-to-skin contact between mothers and newborns. After my own son Edwin was born, he was immediately placed on my chest, touching my skin, for an extended period of time. This seems to be the new trend, and for good reason. Research suggests that skin-to-skin contact has immediate positive effects for babies, and can effectively reduce crying, stress, promote sleep, and even help establish a breastfeeding routine.
In fact, research suggests that the effects of skin-to-skin contact can be long lasting, especially for premature babies who generally require incubators after birth and don’t often receive skin-to-skin contact from their mothers right away. For example, premature babies who are given massage therapy in the hospital while in their incubators gain more weight and have shorter hospital stays on average than premature babies who do not receive touch therapy. Further, in a more recent study, researchers randomly assigned some premature babies to receive two weeks of skin-to-skin contact from their mothers, while other premature babies were randomly assigned to remain in incubators. Babies who received two weeks of skin-to-skin contact had healthier stress responses, sleep patterns, and even some better cognitive abilities than babies who were simply given the standard incubator treatment. Most importantly, these effects were still evident in children 10 years later.
But why is touch so important? What does touch actually do for the body? Researchers have shown that touch can reduce stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) and lower heart rate, effectively calming babies when they are upset. Touch has even been shown to calm stress responses in the brains of adults.
In one study, researchers brought married couples into the lab and had one of the two placed in an fMRI scanner, which is essentially a magnet used to capture images of your brain. In a series of trials, the participant in the scanner saw either a green circle or a red “x." A green circle meant that the trial would end without anything else happening. However, a red “x” meant that there was a 25 percent chance that the participant would receive a mild electric shock on the ankle a few seconds later (yikes!). In one condition, the participant in the scanner received these trials on their own. In another, a stranger entered the room and held the participant’s hand. In a final condition, the participant’s spouse was asked to hold their hand.
The researchers were interested in how the participants’ brains reacted to the few seconds between seeing the red “x” and feeling the shock, or in other words, how the brain anticipates something bad happening. Generally when we anticipate something bad or threatening, specific parts of the brain are activated. The results of the study showed that activation in response to anticipating the shock is lessened when a loved one is holding your hand. In other words, when your spouse or partner is holding your hand, your brain is more relaxed when you are anticipating the possibility of being shocked. The brain did not respond the same way when a stranger was holding the participant’s hand. Further, the happier the couples were in their relationships, the more the partner’s hand lessened the brain’s response to the shock.
The moral of the story? A little bit of physical contact can go a long way in reducing stress. Now, you might have heard that cuddling or carrying babies too much might “spoil” them. That’s certainly what my mom told me. The logic behind this conventional wisdom is that when you touch or carry babies all the time, they get used to it and will eventually cry any time you put them down. The truth is, there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, and most of the data on carrying suggests that it leads to a calm and happy baby. In fact, a very recent study found that adults who were held and cuddled as babies were the most likely to be healthy and well-adjusted later in life. The more they were carried, the better they functioned.
Another important take-home message here is that while a little bit of skin-to-skin contact can be calming for babies, it can also be important for you. In general, physical contact with a loved one in a time of anxiety or stress decreases the stress response in the body and brain, for both babies and adults. So snuggle those babies as much as you want, and when you’re feeling anxious, a little bit of snuggling or simply holding the hand of someone close to you just might be the thing you need to ease the stress.