The Importance of Skin Stimulation


Throw away gadgets. Discard expert opinions.
Forget the toys to stimulate intelligence.
Don’t buy devices to simulate what is real.
Return to the real.
Connect with your children heart-to-heart.
Let them gaze at you, at trees and water and sky.
Let them feel their pain.
Feel it with them.
Touch them with your hands, your eyes and your heart.
Let them bond with the living breathing world.
Let them feel their feelings and teach them their names.
Return to the uncarved simplicity.        

—Vimala McClure
in The Tao of Motherhood


    Skin sensitivity is the earliest developed and most fundamental functions of the body. Nurturing stimulation of the skin is, in fact, essential for adequate organic and psychological development, both for animals and human beings. When asked what he thought of infant massage, anthropologist Ashley Montagu commented, “People don’t realize that communication for a baby, the first communications it receives and the first language of its development, is through the skin. If only most people had realized this they would have all along given babies the kind of skin stimulation they require.”

    Behaviorally, mammals tend to fall into the “cache” or “carry” type. The caching species leave their young for long periods while the mother gathers food. The infants must remain silent for long periods of time so as not to attract predators, therefore they do not cry. For the same reason, they do not urinate unless stimulated by the mother. In addition, the young have internal mechanisms that control their body temperature. The mother’s milk is extremely high in protein and fat, and the infants suckle at a very fast rate.
In contrast, the carrying species maintain continuous contact with their infants and feed often. The babies suckle slowly, they urinate often, they cry when distressed or out of contact with the parent, and they need the parent to keep them warm. The mother’s milk content is low in protein and fat, so infants need to suckle often. Humans are designed like the carrying species; in fact, human milk is identical in protein and fat content to that of the anthropoid apes, a carrying species. Our infants need to be in close physical contact with us as much as possible.


    Physically, massage acts in much the same way in humans as licking does in animals. Animals lick their young and maintain close skin contact. Animal babies  that are not licked, caressed, and permitted to cling in infancy grow up scrawny and more vulnerable to stress. They tend to fight with one another and to abuse and neglect their own young. Licking serves to stimulate the physiological systems and to bond the young with the mother. A mother cat spends over fifty percent of her time licking her babies—and you will never see a colicky kitten! Without the kind of stimulation that helps their gastrointestinal system begin to function properly, newborn kittens die.
Scientists have seen behavior and responses in animals which parallel the growth and development of our own young, and these parallels are truly fascinating. In animals, the genitourinary tract will not function without the stimulation of frequent licking. Even the number of times a mother licks her young, and the amount of time spent in each area is genetically determined.


    When the infant mammal receives early skin stimulation, there is a highly beneficial influence on the immunological system. In one experiment, rats that were gently handled in infancy had a higher serum antibody standard in every case. More simply stated, these animals had a much greater ability to resist disease.
Equally important for our purposes was the behavior of these gentled rats:
“. . . When handled, the gentled rats were relaxed and yielding. They were not easily frightened. The laboratory attendant had raised them under conditions in which they were frequently handled, stroked, and had kindly sounds uttered to them, and they responded with fearlessness, friendliness, and a complete lack of neuromuscular tension or irritability. The exact opposite was true of baby rats left on their own . . . these animals were frightened and bewildered, anxious and tense. . .”  
—Ashley Montagu, Touching

    Among other important findings with the rats: Those who were “gentled” for three weeks after weaning showed a faster weight gain than un-gentled rats under the same conditions, and those that were handled gently were physically much more resistant to the harmful effects of stress and deprivation.
In one study, rats with their thyroid and parathyroid (endocrine glands that regulate the immune system) removed responded remarkably to massage. In the experimental group, the rats were gently massaged and spoken to several times a day. They were relaxed and yielding and not easily frightened, and their nervous systems remained stable. The control group rats, which did not receive this type of care, were nervous, fearful, irritable, and enraged: they died within forty-eight hours. Another study with rats showed a higher immunity to disease, faster weight gain, and better neurological development among those that had been gently stroked in infancy.
Moving up the animal scale, dogs, horses, cows, dolphins and many other animals have also shown remarkable differences when lovingly handled in infancy. The touch of the human hand improved the function of virtually all of the sustaining systems (respiratory, circulatory, digestive, eliminative, nervous, and endocrine), and increasing “touchability,” gentleness, friendliness, and fearlessness. In his book, Touching, Ashley Montagu writes: “the more we learn about the effects of cutaneous [skin] stimulation, the more pervasively significant for healthy development do we find it to be.”
Harry Harlow’s famous monkey experiments were the first to show that for infants, contact comfort is even more important than food. Infant monkeys, given the choice of a wire mother figure with food or a soft, terrycloth figure without food, chose the terrycloth mother figure. Human infants with failure-to-thrive syndrome exhibit the same type of behavior; though given all the food they need, they continue to deteriorate without intervention that involves emotional nurturing, contact comfort, and care.
In nearly every bird and mammal studied, close physical contact has been found to be essential both to the infant’s healthy survival and to the mother’s ability to nurture. In the previously mentioned studies with rats, if pregnant females were restrained from licking themselves (a form of self-massage), their mothering activities were substantially diminished. Additionally, when pregnant female animals were gently stroked every day, their offspring showed higher weight gain and reduced excitability, and the mothers showed greater interest in their offspring, with a more abundant and richer milk supply.


    Evidence supports the same conclusions for humans. Mothers who have meaningful skin contact during pregnancy and labor tend to have easier labors and are more responsive to their infants. Touching and handling her baby assists the new mother in milk production by aiding in secretion of prolactin, the “mothering hormone.” By regularly massaging her baby, the mother not only sets up a cycle of healthy responses which improves her mothering abilities day by day, but also enhances her baby’s well-being, his disposition, and the relationship between the two of them. The process begun at the embryonic stage thus continues, allowing a natural unfolding of the baby’s potential within the safe and loving arms of his mother.
Nurturing stimulation of the skin—handling, cuddling, rocking and massage—increases cardiac functions of the human infant; massage stimulates the respiratory, circulatory, and gastrointestinal systems—benefits especially appreciated by the “colicky” baby and his parents.
A baby’s first experience with the surrounding environment occurs through touch, developing prenatally as early as 16 weeks. Nature begins the massage before the baby is born. As opposed to the extremely short labors of most other animals, it has been suggested that a human mother’s extended labor helps make up for the lack of postpartum licking. For the human infant, the contractions of labor provide some of the same type of preparation for the functioning of his internal systems as early licking of the newborn does for other mammals.
Touch impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood, and has long-term effects. Through this contact, newborns are able to learn about their world, bond with their parents, and communicate their needs and wants. Eighty percent of a baby’s communication is expressed through body movement.When parents engage in appropriate touch, young children have an improved chance to successfully develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually.
Infants who experience more physical contact with parents demonstrate increased mental development in the first six months of life compared to young children who receive limited physical interaction. This improved cognitive development has been shown to last even after eight years, illustrating the importance of positive interactions. Infants who receive above-average levels of affection from their parents are shown to be less likely to be hostile, anxious, or emotionally distressed as adults.