We’ve all had that annoying relative or friend who complains that we’re holding our baby too much, warning that too much holding will spoil our little cherub, or make them stuck to us like glue for all eternity. Comments like that can definitely get under a parent’s skin, especially at the beginning, when you sort of don’t know what the heck you’re doing and you’re a hot mess of doubt, worry, and hormones.
The good news is that study after study has proven that holding your baby is not harmful in the least, and is actually a vital part of caring for babies in the early days, with long-term impacts on health and development. (So, you can probably politely tell your nosy aunt to shut her trap, mmmkay?)
Just a few months ago, a study came out showing that early skin-to-skin contact leads to improved neurodevelopment, higher IQ, and lower rates of aggression. Skin-to-skin contact has also been shown to increase breastfeeding success, and can even make certain medical procedures less painful for infants.
And now you can add another fascinating bit of research to the list: Last week, a study was published in Current Biology that sheds further light on the importance of skin-to-skin and physical contact between babies and their caregivers. Researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio looked at 125 infants, both premature and full-term, observing and comparing how these babies responded to touch.
The researchers found that overall, premature babies were more likely to have a reduced response to touch than their full-term counterparts. The preemies who had more exposure to painful medical procedures were also more likely to have a reduced response to touch. But preemies who were exposed to what the researchers call “gentle touch” had a stronger response than the preemies who did not receive this contact — and the researchers found that this kind of touch could have positive and long-lasting effects on these babies.
“Our findings add to our understanding that more exposure to these types of supportive touch can actually impact how the brain processes touch, a sense necessary for learning and social-emotional connections,” lead study author Dr. Nathalie Maitre tells Reuters.
In a phone conversation with Babble, Dr. Maitre explains that what the researchers were looking at specifically was “intentional supportive touch,” meaning that the touch had to be from caregivers who were touching the babies as an act of nurturing (i.e., not just diapers changes, feeding, or for other various medical procedures). This included direct skin-to-skin contact.
Dr. Maitre says that “intentional supportive touch,” is “absolutely crucial to babies’ developing brains.” She explains to Babble that for infants, touch is the one of the first senses that develops, before hearing or sight, therefore making it the “building block in early infancy of communication.”
Dr. Maitre, who also happens to be the mom of two boys herself, explains that her study looked primarily at how the power of touch impacts premature babies, but that all babies benefit from it.
“Gentle touch, especially skin on skin, is just one of the most important things parents can do for their babies,” she tells Babble.
In other words: All you new moms and dads out there can breathe a giant sigh of relief — and ignore everything you’ve ever heard about “spoiling” a baby with attention and cuddles. There is just no way to hold a baby too much. Really and truly. No freaking way.
Of course, even if parents intend to shower their babies with endless hugs and kisses, it’s not always possible. No one is saying that you can never put your baby down, or that your own needs should be pushed completely aside when you have a baby. Dr. Maitre herself wants to reassure new parents that every ounce of loving touch counts, so parents shouldn’t beat themselves up, but do whatever they can, knowing that touch is a cornerstone of positive infant development.
As a NICU doctor, Maitre also knows that parents of preemies face certain roadblocks when it comes to spending enough time with their babies. She tells Babble that many NICU parents live prohibitive distances from their baby’s care facility, and may have jobs and other children to tend to at the same time. She again emphasizes that every touch counts, and recommends NICU parents delegate some of that skin-to-skin and gentle touch time to trusted relatives and friends whenever possible.
The bottom line? When it comes to holding your baby, Dr. Maitre wants parents to know that nothing is too little — except nothing at all. Parents should know that touch is absolutely critical for all babies, forming the basis for a lifetime of healthy development.
Kudos to Dr. Maitre for sharing her amazing research with us all, and assuring parents everywhere that showering your baby with love and affection has zero negative consequences and is 100 percent beneficial. (No matter what your Great Aunt Edna has to say about “spoiling” the baby.)