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The answer is simple: Survival and development.
Dr. Frederick Leboyer who is a French obstetrician and author says,
“Touching is the first communication a baby receives.”
“The first language of its development is through the skin.”
He also describes touch in a wonderful way:
"Being touched and caressed, being massaged, is food for the infant, food as necessary as minerals, vitamins and proteins.”
"It is through loving, caressing, tactile stimulation and communication that the infant learns that he/she is loved. We must speak to their skins. We must speak to their backs, which thirst and cry as much as their bellies".
When a baby comes into this world, she is very curious and starts to learn more about the world and the environment around her. She starts to learn and ask questions such as who am I? Am I safe here? Can I depend on the people around me? Am I lovable and significant? Do I need to protect myself? Is it better to respond with compassion or with violence?
A child’s brain tries to find out the answers to these questions before she is two. Thanks to organizations such as the Touch Research Institute and Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University, we now have a better and deeper understanding about infants’ learning process and how touch plays a role in their development. It is found that baby’s early life experiences lay the foundation for a child’s social, cognitive and emotional development.
Touch plays a vital and important role in the survival and development of babies. A baby learns about its environment and the world through touch (E.g. Cuddling, holding, diapering, massaging, etc.) It feels great and fun to cuddle and hold a baby but that’s not the only thing that’s going on. Stroking and holding your baby helps the brain release important hormones that stimulate the development of vital organs. A love, bonding and well-being hormone such as oxytocin is also release in the baby as well as the parent who is touching, cuddling or massaging the baby.
Apart from physical growth, touch also plays an important role in cognitive/brain development. Babies need touch on a constant basis to help their brains grow. Touch helps the nerve cells form connections within the baby’s brain that enables it to function more efficiently. This has been further studied by Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute and Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University. The baby’s brain is constantly forming new neural connections as he learns and observes his environment. During a massage or parent-infant interaction, a serve and return interaction happens between the parent and child where the mother smiles or coos and the baby smiles or coos back. This helps the brain form connections about cause and effect as well.
Moreover, touch is also important to the early social development and attachment behaviour of the child. There are studies that show that children who receive plenty of touch and tactile stimulation tend to grow into capable, trusting, well-adjusted and loving adults. On the other hand, those who are deprived of touch in infancy shows predispositions towards violent and aggressive behaviours. Certainly there are many other things that can influence human behaviour other than how we were touched as babies. However, it does make sense that during infancy, which is the most vulnerable time of our lives, we form expectations and patterns about how to world functions, how safe and valued we are, through our skin (touch). These connections and ideas are carried forward into adulthood.
So, if you were to give your child one thing, something that could help with the development of your child, what would it be? Would it be a learning toy or baby flash cards? For an infant, the most important experience that a person can give would be the communication a child shares with her parents and that communication starts even before the baby is born and enhanced through touch once the baby is out in this world. Baby massage is one tool that you can use to enhance this bond, communicate and learn about your baby.
“A young mother sat in the dirt with her baby across her knees, lovingly massaging him and singing. As I watched her I remember thinking, there is so much more to life than material wealth. She had so little, yet she could offer her baby this beautiful gift of love and security, a gift that would help to make him a compassionate human being. I thought about all the children I had known there and how loving, warm and playful they were in spite of their so-called disadvantages. They took care of each other and they accepted responsibility without reservation. Perhaps, I thought, they are able to be so loving, so relaxed and natural because they have been loved like this as infants, and infants have been loved like this in India for thousands of years. A seed was planted in my mind, and I returned home with both joyful anticipation and of the future and sadness for what I had to leave behind.”
By Vimala McClure, Founder of the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) and author of Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents.