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The skin is the largest organ in our body and our first sense to develop in utero at 3 weeks. The skin is filled with countless receptors that can distinguish the smallest changes in the environment. Hard? Soft? Cold? Hot? Some of these receptors send pain signals and some can tell us if we have an itch. Each receptor activates a specific part of our brain, making us feel calm, irritated, soothed, angry or hurt, and yet touch is a purely physical thing. The skin is basically the nervous system turned inside out, so stimulating the skin effects the nervous system and consequently the brain. How a baby is touched and the frequency of touch effects their development and well being.
The infant brain goes through incredible growth in the first 3 years of life. In one year the brain grows to 50% of its adult volume and by age three it reaches 80%. During that expansive period of growth the cells in their bodies are changing. Touch plays a major role in cell development. When a baby receives positive and pleasurable touch endorphins and oxytocin (love hormone) are released causing the cells to grow and expand. When stressful experiences occur our cells contract and catecholamines (stress hormones) are released, inhibiting cell growth. Babies in the NICU are often isolated in incubators and deprived of the touch they would other wise be receiving. Research has shown the effects of touch and has led to procedural changes at many hospitals. The study found that infants who were held with skin to skin contact (kangaroo hold), for an hour every day, scored higher in both mental and motor sections in the Bayley Assessment test at 6 months.
Babies now a days are being touched very often and without having a formalized time for this. This is wonderful! We are seeing more babies being worn with wraps, front carriers and slings. These devices create a continuous sense of movement and vestibular work (balance), that is very similar to being in utero. All of that movement and touch is great, but we also want to be mindful of going slow, especially with a newborn. The nervous system of a baby is 10 times slower than our adult nervous system. This means we need to be mindful that we are not over stimulating them. They do a great job of letting us know when they receive too much stimulation. You’ll see them space out, avoid eye contact, blink continuously, fuss, and some babies hands and arms will have a little shake to them. These are clear signs to stop engaging for a while and create a soothing and settling experiences to let the nervous system regulate. Because their nervous systems are so immature, they need our help to help themselves settle. We do this by rocking, swaying, bouncing, swaddling, singing, skin to skin contact, mirroring compassion, using a pacifier, and using “shhh” sounds (this replicates the sounds heard in utero).
Mindful Touch Exercise:
Consider your hands. Look at them and reflect on how you use them. What kind of touch do you like or dislike? What do you want to communicate to your little one? Take a moment to close your eyes and think about all the love you have for this wondrous little being. Place one or both hands to their heart center, this can be accessed either through the front or back of the body. Now imagine all of that love, flowing through your hands and into their body. Letting your heart connect through your hands. This exercise can be done as often as you’d like.
There are many ways throughout the day to add in more thoughtful touch time. Diapering is one of my favorite times to use songs, touch and movement games. Making time for daily baby massage is a wonderful addition as well! Different kinds of touch provide different experiences. Light brushing can be soothing or stimulating. Deep, slow gentle squeezes can be reassuring and grounding. Pointed, quick jiggly touch at the tummy can aid in releasing gas bubbles and moving blocked bowels.
Ansley has been teaching Infant Movement classes since 2013, after studying Developmental Movement with Ellynne Skove. Since completing her training Ansley has taught all over the New York, New Jersey, Boston and now Florida. Ansley is certified in Level 1 Reiki and has completed her 200hr YT. She is passionate about empowering, nurturing and providing care to all families as they encounter the demands and joys of parenthood. Through her work she is able to soulfully fulfil her greatest ambition; to care for others.