Few moments are more tender in those first weeks of life than when your baby reaches out and takes your finger while in your arms. It’s the all-important language of touch at work! Social connection is not the only connection at work in that moment; there are neural connections forming as your baby makes contact with that finger. In today’s episode, host Jessica Rolph welcomes Rebecca Parlakian to talk about the power of touch between infants and parents.
Rebecca is Senior Director of Programs at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on the healthy development of infants, toddlers, and families. Much of her work at Zero to Three is connected to the work of Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
[1:27] Rebecca talks about Dr. Meltzoff’s research, and how physical touch helps to develop a baby’s sense of self and other.
[3:03] When do babies know that they have hands?
[3:58] How important is skin-to-skin contact between a parent and a baby?
[5:32] Rebecca discusses how parents can incorporate touch after the hospital — with infants and toddlers.
[6:12] What is Rebecca’s opinion of the research that indicates babies don’t get the same benefit by being hugged by a friendly stranger as they do by a loved one?
[7:32] Is there any research that supports skin-to-skin contact after the hospital?
[9:09] What role can massage play in enhancing that bond between a parent and a child?
[11:10] The nine elements of temperament.
[12:34] Some children love to get their hands messy and other children have an aversion to touching things. What causes this range in sensory preferences?
[13:40] The characteristics of sensory-aversive and sensory-seeking children.
[15:02] Why is sensory play important for a child’s development
[16:25] Why is mouthing natural and important?
[18:03] Is sucking a thumb or finger positive for a baby’s development?
[20:01] What is the earliest memory of touch?
[21:15] Jessica shares the highlights of her conversation with Rebecca.
Mentioned in this episode:
Jessica: I asked Rebecca to explain what that research tells us about the sense of connectedness that babies feel to other human beings.
Baby’s sense of connectedness
Rebecca: Well, I think a lot of us underestimate how much babies are taking in. Because they can’t talk, their ability to communicate is limited. But in truth, what is so exciting about Dr. Meltzoff’s and his team’s work, is that it’s beginning to draw a picture for us of what truly the breadth of what babies are understanding and learning in their earliest months of life. So what we… One of the takeaways from his study was that when infants are shown adults pressing their hands or feet against objects and they are just watching it, the parts of their brain assigned to that part of the body are kind of lighting up. It’s almost like the infant is sort of learning, “Oh, that’s what that body part can do.” So it becomes this really interesting process of how the baby’s brain is mapped just by observing interactions. And they’re beginning to develop their own body map in their brains through their observations. And we knew that all adults had a fully developed body map in the brain. But we didn’t fully understand how this process unfolds in infants. And so, Dr. Meltzoff’s research brings home the fact that babies really are watching, taking in and wiring at the neural level, everything they’re seeing and experiencing.
When do babies discover their hands?
Jessica: And so do babies really know that they have… When do they know that they have hands or that their limbs belong to them?
Rebecca: Yes, so a lot of times we talk about this process of discovering their hands. So, right around four months or three to four months, you begin to see babies lift their hands up into their field of vision and just look at them and kind of move them. And that’s when they’re first starting to figure out like, “Oh yeah, I have these things.” And then right around four months babies will begin to grasp and have this drive to grasp and reach. And if you ever wore hoop earrings around a four-month-old, you totally get the instinct to grab.
Bonding with your baby
Jessica: And then if we think about touch and we’re talking about grasping and understanding that our bodies belong to ourselves, which is such important learning for a baby, can we talk now about skin on skin contact. How important is skin to skin contact between a parent and a baby?
Skin to skin contact
Rebecca: Well, we know that it’s very, very important for babies born prematurely. So that has been one of the great leaps forward in the care in the NICU, is this trend toward allowing what we call kangaroo care, which is when the baby’s health is stable enough that parents can hold them skin on skin in the NICU. The research shows that often they will see the heart rate begin to stabilize and also see improved oxygen saturation levels. So we know that skin on skin contact is… At the end of the day, we’re all mammals, right? So it really… As a baby where we belong is on and with our people. And so that that co-regulation process can happen, the baby is feeling our warmth and smelling our scent. I mean, newborn babies can distinguish their mother’s scent very, very quickly after birth and the father’s scent very soon after birth as well. So we know that these touch-based interactions help them feel like they are home. That they’re with their people and that their people are the ones who they can trust to feel safe and secure.
Scents of the parents
Jessica: So in our modern world, when we have… We’re wearing so many clothes all the time, how does this show up? Or what kind of recommendations do you have for parents after the hospital, for babies and even for older children, for toddlers?
Rebecca: Yeah. So I think we also… We have to remember that even with the layers that we have on, we still smell like us. So that’s why sometimes with toddlers, if a toddler is having trouble falling asleep or something and mom, let’s say, mom or dad is on a business trip, we might give them an old t-shirt of ours to sleep with because despite everything, there is our scent embedded in everything we do. So that can be a real source of comfort and a special lovey for children.
Recognizing familiar touches
Jessica: Yeah, it really gets back to such core biology, when you really think about it. what do you make of the research that indicates that babies don’t get the same benefit by being hugged by a friendly stranger as they do by a loved one?
Rebecca: I think it makes a lot of sense because again, if you think about holding hands with someone, right? You could hold hands with 10 different people today but if one of them was someone that you hold hands with frequently, you would probably recognize that touch. The pressure of that touch, the warmth of the hand, the texture of the skin and that hand is going to feel better to you than the nine other random hands that you’ve held. And this is just another example of how babies are so savvy that they understand that they are being held by someone who’s not mom, not dad, not grandma. That they recognize that it’s a loving touch but it’s not a loving touch from a familiar person. So we don’t derive the same benefit. Just like if a stranger came up to hug you. You might be like “Okay, thanks.” But you’re not going to probably feel comforted from it in the same way than if you had a dear friend or a family member give you that hug.
Alternatives to skin to skin as babies get older
Jessica: So we often talk about skin to skin contact as, I almost feel this kind of like oxytocin rush when I am with my child. My four-year-old woke me up this morning in bed and we had skin to skin time. So I still do that with my little girl. I think the question is, what is the science? Is there any research that supports real skin to skin contact after the hospital?
Rebecca: The research shows that parents don’t have to sort of feel like it’s necessary to have skin to skin contact with shirts off. You just holding your baby, wearing your baby is giving them the beautiful input, the scent, the touch, the pressure of… Feeling the pressure of them on you and you holding them and rubbing their backs, that is magic to a baby. So, again, parents can just in the NICU, skin to skin with shirts off, makes a lot of sense based on the research. But as babies get older, just holding and wearing babies is a beautiful practice and actually cultures that wear their babies more frequently, tend to report that their babies are less fussy. So it also might be a strategy if your baby is/has a more intense temperament or tends to be a bit fussier.
In terms of noticing feeding cues for example, it’s certainly much easier when you’re wearing your baby. So there may be opportunities to just notice the cues of babies more consistently and respond to them in a more timely way when babies are close and being worn.
Enhance your bond with baby massages
Jessica: And then massage. We often talk about baby massage. What role can massage play in enhancing that bond between a parent and a child?
Rebecca: I think a lot of the research around massage is really aligned with this same idea of when mom massages arms and down to fingers and legs and down to toes, babies are truly feeling like where their entire body exists in space, which is a pretty cool thing. And the other piece of baby massage, that when it’s done by a parent and when a parent is really engaging in massage in a way where they’re responding to their baby’s cues, ’cause some babies might be like, “I don’t really like when you touch my toes.” And if a parent notices that and is able to adjust and respond, these are opportunities again to build the trust between parent and child. To let the baby know that, “I see your communications and I will honor them.” And really using that touch, that sensory experience as an opportunity to connect and strengthen the bond, I think is really where the importance of massage is. I also think massage can be really helpful from a regulatory perspective. So again, using massage techniques for babies that are really feeling upset or distressed or overwhelmed, to be able to use a massage technique that is soothing and that provides that sense of calmness and containment that babies and toddlers often need because they don’t have those strategies yet to soothe themselves consistently.
Jessica: Yeah, and I remember for very little babies, I remember needing to close out other kinds of stimulation. So really using a soft voice, having soft lights when I was massaging my baby because it is so stimulating for them. And it’s one, it’s… You’re really truly deeply stimulating one of their core senses. So just thinking about it in that way, I remember realizing that this is really a big deal for them.
Rebecca: Yeah, and when we think about temperament, there’s nine elements of temperament and one of them is how babies or how people process sensory information. So, some babies will feel the massage, will be able to tolerate you singing and have the lights on. While other babies, if you’re watching carefully and noticing, the other babies may be totally overwhelmed like you said by having a massage and a parent singing and having the lights on. And so, we really just need to remember that temperament is beginning… Those characteristics are beginning to emerge at three to four months of age and that even as infants they’re going to have preferences about how their body is touched. And again, when we honor that and respect that, we’re just giving our baby such a powerful message that, “You are important. I see you and I respect you.” And that’s love.
Ranges of sensory input
Jessica: What you just said, gets to my next question which I’ve always been really curious about this range of comfort that babies and toddlers have with sensory input, that it can really vary among children. Some children love to get their hands messy and squish the finger paint and other children really have an aversion to touching things.
Jessica: So, can you help us understand that range and why that is?
Rebecca: So the short answer is that it really is part of our temperament and temperament is neurologically wired; parents don’t make temperament. And there’s no such thing as a bad or a good temperament, but it’s certainly true that certain elements of temperament can be experienced by parents as easier or less easy. So, for example, I had the kid who hated having seams on her socks and didn’t… My son, I’ve cut every label out of every shirt and pants for his entire life, I think.
So these preferences exist and it’s part of who we are as a human. So I think we just need to remember that as much as we see ourselves in our babies and toddlers, they come into the world as completely unique individuals. And we kind of talk about a child’s approach to sensory experiences. We say some children tend to be more sensory aversive. They don’t really like to want to do finger paint. Or we talk about children who are sensory seeking. These are the kids who want to hug all of their friends and they want to touch everything in sight. And it’s not that it’s bad or good. It’s just who your child is.
Now for a child who’s more sensory aversive, we don’t have to just throw up our hands and say, “Oh, I guess that’s just who you are. We’ll never do Play-Doh.” We can slowly, over time, continue to offer sensory experiences, and let them try. We can modify sensory experiences, like for example, we can have them put their hand in a little plastic glove or even into a baggie or we can put the Play-Doh into like a Ziploc bag and have them touch the Play-Doh through the bag, and then over time build their sensory knowledge about this texture and this material, and over time, take it out of the Ziploc bag.
Jessica: Interesting, and so I think that another tip that I have tried is using a Popsicle stick. So if there’s shaving cream or something that they’re not interested in, but using an implement.
Rebecca: That’s a great idea.
Sensory play and child development
Jessica: To start to explore and get increased comfort level with the sensory play. So this… But what is the case for sensory play, then? Why is this helpful for a child’s development? Why should we try to encourage the children who are naturally less interested in getting messy into engaging with things like Play-Doh?
Rebecca: Well, I think we want to encourage children to explore the world through their senses, because how will we ever know what firm means or what squishy means or what prickly means if… Or smooth, if children never experience the world or objects that have those qualities, right? It’s also a drive, a form of curiosity for young children. So many children explore the world and learn about the world through their senses. So, for example, by touching a ball, we sort of get a sense of what this object can do. It’s designed to roll, or if we touch a toy car and we feel those smooth wheels on our hands, we begin to kind of form predictions about what the purpose of this object is. I remember when I was taking child development courses in college and one of my textbooks said that babies have a very, an advanced exploratory system that goes eye-hand-mouth. “I see it, I grab it, I put it in my mouth because that sort of tells me what this thing is and what it can do.”
Importance of mouthing
Jessica: Oh, yeah, let’s talk about mouth as this place for incredible sensory exploration. Can you speak to why mouthing is natural and important?
Rebecca: Well, there are so many sensory receptors around the lips and mouth, first of all, so it’s a great way to get information for a young baby. And we know that that is one of the primary ways that they are doing exactly that, creating predictions about what things are and what they can do. I think for a lot of parents, mouthing is tricky because parents are so worried about their babies getting sick. That it’s… I’ve heard so many times like, “Take that out of your mouth,” or, “Don’t let her put that in her mouth.” If we can create an environment of, yes, for babies, it really meets their developmental needs because as infants, they don’t have a lot of tools at their disposal to explore the world. They really just have their hands and mouths as babies. So letting them explore in ways that are developmentally aligned with what they can do, helps them grow and learn. There was also a really cool, it was a small study, but the study found that the more that babies played with foods like peas on their high chair tray, the more likely they were to try those new foods. So there is a research-based argument to be made for playing with your food, that playing with it makes you feel more familiar with it and thus you’re more likely to try it.
Sucking thumbs and fingers
Jessica: I love that. And many babies instinctively find solace in sucking their thumb or a finger. Is this a positive development?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s developmentally expected because young babies at least initially, are really comforted by parents closeness, by being held, but also by sucking, by drinking milk, and that’s very comforting for babies. And I think if parents have fed their babies, they’ll notice that sometimes the babies stop sucking for nutrition and they’re just kind of, I used to call it lazy sucking, right? When they’re just not really actively swallowing, but they’re just playing and that’s a soothing process and that soothing that they derive from sucking starts from infancy. And of course, it makes sense then that, like I said, babies don’t have a lot of tools available to them, but one of the tools they have is their hand or a pacifier, if parents introduce the pacifier, and so they transfer that comforting pattern of sucking to their finger or to a pacifier or to a blanket. So you see them seeking out and using this strategy because they just don’t have a lot of strategies when they’re very, very little. What we hope to see over time is that as children grow and they develop new and expanded ways of comforting themselves that they don’t have to turn to sucking so frequently or so consistently. And I think from the dental perspective that’s also recommended that they shift away from sucking as a strategy.
I’m a failure as a child development specialist because both of my kids used a pacifier until they were three and they’ve both had braces, so. [chuckle]
Jessica: There you go. We can’t do it all.
Rebecca: We can’t do it all.
Jessica: And I wanted to ask, what is your earliest memory of touch?
Rebecca: It’s funny, I think my earliest memory of touch is, I don’t know if you can imagine, but the feeling of someone holding you up and they have their hands under your armpits, you can kind of feel someone’s thumbs in your armpit. My earliest memory is someone holding me up and feeling those thumbs digging into my armpit and then saying, “Look through the window at your new baby brother,” and I remember looking through a window at just a bunch of babies and that was when I saw my brother and I was three when he was born. So yeah.
Jessica: I love that. I have chills. What a sweet first memory.
Rebecca: Yes. He turned out to be a great brother, so I was lucky.
Jessica: That’s so fun to hear. So thank you so much for being with us Rebecca, it’s been wonderful having you and hearing more about your insights and your work. So thank you.
Rebecca: Oh, it’s been absolute pleasure. I hope to talk to you all again soon.
Three episode takeaways
Touch has played a major role in the bonding between me and my children. Let’s look at some of the ways we can get the most out of physical contact with our babies:
Power of touch
Skin-on-skin is not the only way for you and your baby to benefit from the power of touch. As babies get older, simply holding and wearing your baby can offer a lot of the same benefits. Cultures that wear their babies more frequently, often report that their babies are less fussy. So it also might be a strategy if your baby has a more intense temperament or tends to be a bit fussier.
Options for sensory adverse
If your child gets squirmy around certain textures try offering a plastic glove, baggie or a popsicle stick. This barrier can make new textures a whole lot more appealing for those who are sensory adverse.
Allow babies to explore their mouths
Whenever possible, give your baby opportunities to explore with their mouths. The lips and mouth are loaded with sensory receptors and therefore convey all kinds of information to your baby’s growing brain. There is some evidence that babies who play with their food are more likely to try new foods!
You can find more information on touch — like skin-on-skin contact and sensory play — on the Lovevery blog, “Here With You.”
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