From the moment a pregnant woman intuitively strokes her growing belly, a bond forms. In response to this gentle massage, the unborn child will move her arms, legs, and head. This exchange of movement and the mutual feelings it evokes initiates a bond between mother and child. Bonds, such as this, that start with touch can be one of the strongest and most influential for infants and children of all ages.
For infants, touch is their primary sense. It is how they experience and respond to their environment and their caregivers. Countless studies have proven that for infants, touch is essential to growth and well being. According to Frederick Leboyer, French obstetrician and author of Loving Hands-The Traditional Art of Baby Massage, "Being touched and caressed, massaged, is food for the infant. Food as necessary as minerals, vitamins and proteins."
The link between touch, growth, and bonding begins in the womb. In the embryo there is a layer of cells called the extoderm. These cells produce both the skin and the nervous system. This physiological connection is the foundation through which the embryo experiences life. Touch and movement provide the growing child with awareness and the innate knowledge that she is alive. This awareness will follow her through birth and into the world where touch will continue to play a key role in her development.
Developmentally, touch is crucial to brain growth and the cultivation of coping skills. The ability to cope with stress begins in infancy. Touch contributes to this by encouraging the brain to integrate nerve impulses. This helps create neurological, chemical, emotional, and cognitive patterns that reduce the harmful effects of stress. An infant experiences stress when she is hungry, wet, under/over stimulated, or in need of physical contact. When a parent answers her cries with comfort and loving touch, she learns to trust her feelings and the messages her body is sending. She also learns to trust and experience the emotional bond she shares with her caregiver. When comforting touch and a secure loving bond is combined with empathy, the child learns to accept and calm herself. This is the first step towards regulating her emotions and developing resilience.
Successful infant bonding begins with touch. Touch is soothing and a natural way of showing love. When a child is in need or disoriented due to stress, movement or action combined with touch helps her regain balance. If this action emphatically answers the child's need without imposing the parent's perception, then the child learns to trust herself. She feels safe within her body and her environment. These responses are the building blocks for how the child will connect with the world and handle adversity. Also important to infant bonding are expressions of positive emotion and love. The child who has smiling, cooing parents feels a positive connection with them. She knows and feels their love. This connection often takes the form of intense mutual emotional engagement. Examples of this include staring into her parent's eyes or enjoying a ritual such as bath time or massage. These periods are essential to the bonding process. Likewise, breaking these connections paves the path for integrating stress. When there is a reduction in emotional arousal, such as bedtime, a child learns to trust. She learns to trust that when she needs her parents, they will be there to reconnect with her. Sarah's story illustrates the ebb and flow of connection, reconnection, and trust.
After giving birth to her daughter Sarah, Helen instinctively places the child on her chest. She rubs Sarah's back and kisses her cheek. The comfort of these gestures helps calm Sarah. After a few minutes, her father, Tim, scoops her into his arms and begins stroking her legs. With gentle and loving touch, Sarah is welcomed into this world. Upon their arrival home, Sarah's parents continue to offer her comforting touch and loving looks. Her mother and father stare into her tiny face; only too happy to share the joy they feel. Their happiness is transferred to Sarah and she feels their love. Several weeks go by, and all the while Sarah is rocked, cuddled, nursed, and fawned over. During this time, Sarah and her parents establish a sense of communication. By reading her cues, Tim and Helen are able to anticipate Sarah's needs. At eight weeks of age, Sarah is able to focus and lock eyes with her mother. Throughout the day, mother and child share quiet moments staring into each other's eyes. More often than not, Sarah is the one who breaks the connection. She signals that the moment is over by turning her head, moving her arms or kicking her legs. At this point, Helen turns her concentration elsewhere. She talks to Tim, answers the phone or attends to household chores. From time to time, Helen and Tim become distracted and do not realize that Sarah is in need. Her cries let them know that she wants attention. These cries bring Tim and Helen back to Sarah. They intuitively use touch to calm her until her needs are met. By touching and responding with empathy, her parents give Sarah a sense of safety and security. By consistently attending to Sarah in this way, they help her establish a foundation on which her future coping skills will be built.
Dr. Caron B. Goode is the founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents International, a training and certification program for parent coaches. In addition to duties with the academy, Goode is the founder of the website InspiredParenting.net, and the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Nurture Your Child's Gift: Inspired Parenting and Help Kids Cope with Stress & Trauma. For more information on The Academy for Coaching Parents International or to sign up for academy announcements, visit www.acpi.biz.