What do you think is more important for a healthy development: food or human contact? Psychologists have studied this question in depth for years, starting with Harry Harlow’s experiments with Rhesus Monkeys. Harry Harlow spent years looking into rhesus monkey’s developmental patterns and social bonding skills. Through his study, he came to the conclusion that touch and maternal contact is just as important, if not more important than food when it comes to healthy development.
In his experiment, Harry Harlow raised monkeys in isolation. They had no contact with mother figures, friends, or family members. Instead, the monkeys had two surrogate mother figures, one made entirely out of wires, and one covered in cloth. Throughout the experiment, he gave the monkey the choice between the two mothers in multiple scenarios. What he found was that the baby monkeys continuously chose the cloth covered mothers, only going to the wire mothers when food was absolutely necessary. You can read more about this study here.
This study is an important part about what changed our approach to bonding and relationships. Through analyzing this study and its results, psychologists and doctors came to the conclusion that touch is necessary for survival, not just a pleasantry in early childhood. This is made obvious in encounters with children who are denied maternal contact in their early months. Hospitals who don’t promote holding and contact immediately after birth often have higher mortality rates than those that encourage nurses to interact with the babies physically.1
Holding your baby is so much more than just a sweet moment between parent and baby. A mother’s touch changes a child’s life for the better, making them more able to build relationships, handle stress, understand other people’s emotions, and connect on a deeper level with more people. Who knew monkeys could teach us this much!
- Takeuchi, Mika S., et al. “The Effect of Interpersonal Touch During Childhood on Adult Attachment and Depression: A Neglected Area of Family and Developmental Psychology?” Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 24 Feb. 2009, pp. 109–117., doi:10.1007/s10826-009-9290-x.
While it may be hard to believe, children experience stress just like we do as adults. We, as adults, have had plenty of time to learn how to manage stress, babies have not. While some people argue that a glass of wine a day is enough to keep away stress or working out regularly is the best way to remain stress free, babies don’t have the ability to do these things! So, what is the key to a stress-free childhood? Is it a glass of warm milk? A mommy and me gymnastics class? It’s none of these things. One thing is especially important to having a stress-free and relaxing childhood: touch! That’s right, one simple touch reduces stress in everyone, but especially children.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the doctor! Doctors believe that children who are calmed with touch learn what the emotional regulation process is like and therefore are able to calm themselves better later on in life. Not only does a touch calm a child in the moment, but it reduces stress far into adulthood. Touch helps children manage stress when faced with anxieties. So, picking up your baby when they start to cry gives them a change to learn how to calm themselves down in the future. Additionally, touch helps prevent pain in the baby. A study performed in 2000 found that “full-term babies who were held close by their mothers during a heel lance or stick — a simple, minimally-invasive procedure used to gather blood samples — cried and grimaced less than babies who were swaddled in a crib during the procedure, and their heart rates were also more relaxed.”1 Babies benefit from touch from the moment they are born and provide caregivers and parents with similar benefits as well. Holding a baby reduces maternal stress and builds a relationship between the baby and the holder.
Every moment of touch gives a child an opportunity to mature, learn, and cope better. Meaningful touch is necessary for survival and a healthy life as they grow!
- Pearson, Catherine. “The Incredible Benefits Of Simply Holding Your Baby Close.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 23 Oct. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-incredible-benefits-of-simply-holding-your-baby-close_n_5626700fe4b08589ef491176.
I know what you’re thinking. “What could a kangaroo POSSIBLY know about being a dad?” While giving your child to a Kangaroo probably won’t win you the “father of the year” award, we have a lot to learn from the way kangaroos care for their babies. Female kangaroos have a pouch that they carry their babies in, keeping them close and in contact as much as possible. While male kangaroos don’t have a pouch, human fathers have used the idea of a Kangaroo pouch to form strong and meaningful relationships with their children. Kangaroo care is the idea of integrating as much skin-to-skin contact into a relationship between an infant and parent. A small study performed in 2007 exploring the relationship between fathers and babies found that fathers who held their babies to their chest had an immediate effect on their babies. Doctors also stated that skin to skin contact between a baby and their father is what creates the bond between them.
Skin to skin contact is not just beneficial for the child. Holding a child changes the mental state of the child and holder and leads to a healthier life for both. Additionally, studies have shown that babies who received Kangaroo Care (KC) have “more predictable sleep patterns; steadier respiration and heart rates; and better affective attention—or the ability to direct their gaze and actions toward a goal.”1 Consistent, positive physical contact ensures a strong relationship between baby and parent through adulthood. So many small details come together to allow parent and baby to connect and build an intimate relationship full of loving touch. While children are born with a deep connection to their mother already, a child must form a deeper relationship with their father upon entering the world. Holding a child against the fathers chest promotes the bond between father and child throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Jesus first experiences touch as any other child would, being held in the arms of his mother, Mary. This first moment of touch not only prepares us for Jesus’ ministry in obedience to God throughout his life on earth, but also introduces us to the idea of touch in his ministry. Jesus’ touch in this story sets the scene for a lifetime of touch that culminates in the soul saving touch of the crucifixion. The completion of the purification process through Jesus’ circumcision fulfills the purification process of all babies for the rest of time. Later in Jesus’ ministry here on earth, he is approached by a Pharisee, Nicodemus, in the middle of the night. Jesus states, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Though it is impossible to be physically reborn, we are asked to be like infants in our faith and in our love. We are asked to enter into the arms of our father God just as we enter into the arms of our earthly fathers.
Touch is a necessary part of building a relationship between a father and child. It builds the bond a healthy relationship rests on for the rest of the child’s life! Kangaroo’s might not be able to raise our children, but we are lucky to have learned what we have from them!
- Kluger, Jeffrey. “How Cuddling Saves Tiny Babies.” Time, Time, 8 Jan. 2014, time.com/504/how-cuddling-saves-tiny-babies/.