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There are two studies whose results are that “pleasant touch” is good for babies. They say that a gentle touch or caress, deemed “pleasant touch,” stimulates a baby’s senses and induces a response indicative of parent-infant bonding. The data says that new research into the matter now finds that these interactions are not only important for bonding, but that they also build on the child’s social and physiological development.

One article says “Our results provide physiological and behavioral evidence that sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in development and therefore plays an important role in regulating human social interactions.” The findings are important because they show that the implicit meaning of pleasant touch — to stimulate bonding — develops as early as infancy. In turn, these social interactions carry on into adulthood, as many adults lightly caress, or pet, their partner to express love and affection.

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The researchers, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, found that it takes a very specific type of stroke to induce this bonding feeling. One that’s too fast or too slow doesn’t necessarily activate the socially and physical developing areas of the brain at the same time. With the right speed and softness, touch can show babies how touch is associated with emotional bonding. This bit of information can be relayed to parents in Infant Massage classes and Training sessions.

To show this, they had a group of parents sit with their children on their laps. Experimenters would go around stroking the babies’ arms with a paintbrush, changing the rate at which they moved the brush back and forth. Their strokes took on three different speeds, defined as 0.3, three, or 30 centimeters per second. While they stroked the back of the babies’ arms, they noted responses with physiological and behavioral measures.

The most engaging response came with the medium-velocity strokes, the researchers found. These strokes not only lowered the children’s heart rate, but also caused them to become more curious about the brush as it stroked them. Further strengthening the relationship between pleasant touch and parent-child bonding, the researchers found that parents whose self-reported sensitivity to touch was higher were more likely to have children who responded more to the pleasant touch of the paintbrush.

An article in Scientific American reported that children lacking this kind of interaction (“pleasant touch”) — often those who end up in foster care or orphanages — tend to have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol as they grow older.  High levels of cortisol are present in depression and anxiety disorders. “This lack of affection,” say the researchers, “can result in a child who develops emotional, behavioral, and social problems later in life.”

I was speaking and writing about this almost 40 years ago. It is good that this subject be revisited constantly through the years, always as if it is “big news.” But still, we are just not doing our job if we don’t consider or mention infant massage as part of bonding, affection, pleasant touch. I think it would behoove our instructors and trainers to get information about infant massage into the hands of researchers in this field.

At any rate, these studies are good to help continually educate researchers (and thus health care workers) about the importance of “pleasant touch” in bonding and development throughout a child’s life.

© 2014 Vimala McClure

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