2/13/13 - infants and touch

In today's selection -- infants who are touched frequently, whether by holding, stroking or massaging, are healthier and more emotionally developed than those who aren't:

"Massaged [prematurely born] babies gain weight as much as 50 percent faster than unmassaged babies. They're more active, alert, and responsive, more aware of their surroundings, better able to tolerate noise, and they orient themselves faster and are emotionally more in control. 'Less likely to cry one minute, then fall asleep the next minute,' as a psychologist, detailing the results of one experiment, explained in Science News in 1985, they're 'better able to calm and console themselves.' In a follow-up examination, eight months later, the massaged preemies were found to be bigger in general, with larger heads and fewer physical problems. Some doctors in California have even been putting preterms on small waterbeds that sway gently, and this experiment has produced infants who are less irritable, sleep better, and have fewer apneas. The touched infants, in these studies and in others, cried less, had better temperaments, and so were more appealing to their parents, which is important because the 7 percent of babies born prematurely figure disproportionately among those who are victims of child abuse. Children who are difficult to raise get abused more often. And people who aren't touched much as children don't touch much as adults, so the cycle continues.

 "A 1988 New York Times article on the critical role of touch in child development reported 'psychological and physical stunting of infants deprived of physical contact, although otherwise fed and cared for ... ,' which was revealed by one researcher working with primates and others working with World War II orphans. 'Premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others who were left alone in their incubators ... the massaged infants also showed signs that the nervous system was maturing more rapidly: they became more active ... and more responsive to such things as a face or a rattle ... infants who were massaged were discharged from the hospital an average of six days earlier.' Eight months later, the massaged infants did better in tests of mental and motor ability than the ones who were not. 

"At the University of Miami Medical School, Dr. Tiffany Field, a child psychologist, has been studying a group of babies admitted to the intensive care unit of its hospital for various reasons. With 13,000 to 15,000 births a year at the hospital, she never lacks for a steady supply of babies. Some are receiving caffeine for bradycardia and apnea problems, one is hydroencephalic, some are the children of diabetic mothers who must be carefully monitored. At one Isolette, a young mother sits on a black kitchen chair by her baby, reaches a hand in and gently strokes, whispering motherly nothings into its ear. Inside another Isolette, a baby girl wearing a white nightie with pink hearts bursts into a classic textbook wail that rises and pulses and sets off the alarm on her monitor. ... The nurse follows her massage schedule, stroking each part of the preemie six times for ten seconds. The stimulation hasn't changed the baby's sleep patterns, but she's been gaining thirty grams more a day and will soon be going home, almost a week ahead of what one would expect. 'There's nothing extra going into the babies,' Field explains, 'yet they're more active, gain weight faster; and they become more efficient. It's amazing,' she continues, 'how much information is communicable in a touch. Every other sense has an organ you can focus on, but touch is everywhere.' 

"Saul Schanberg, a neurologist who experiments with rats at Duke University, has found that licking and grooming by the mother rat actually produced chemical changes in the pup; when the pup was taken away from the mother, its growth hormones decreased. ODC (the 'now' enzyme that signals it is time for certain chemical changes to begin) dropped in every cell in the body, and protein synthesis fell. Growth began again only when the pup was returned to the mother. When experimenters tried to reverse the bad effects without the mother, they discovered that gentle stroking wouldn't work, only very heavy stroking with a paintbrush that simulated the mother's tongue; after that the pup developed normally. Regardless of whether the deprived rats were returned to their mothers or stroked with paintbrushes by experimenters, they overreacted and required a great deal of touching, far more than they usually do, to respond normally."


Diane Ackerman


A Natural History of the Senses




Copyright 1990 by Diane Ackerman


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