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What are the health benefits of a mother’s touch?

Mothers instinctively touch, smell and kiss their babies, but it turns out there are real health benefits behind it.
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Alexandra Grigorescu, November 22, 2013 11:03:16 AM

Dear reader,

There are few images more primal than that of a mother holding her baby for the first time. After the incredible—and by all accounts, incomparable—effort of giving birth, it’s a well-earned moment of bonding that sets the stage for a lifetime to come. Just in case your faith in the miraculous adaptability of nature was waning, here’s a helpful jolt to revive it: a mother’s touch and kisses might actually yield health benefits for her baby.

Mothers in the animal kingdom get up close and personal with their newborns. In fact, animal babies will find themselves getting a proper licking as soon as they’re out of the womb. It allows the animal mother to fully experience her young and become familiar with their smell, their taste, and their feel, and therefore be able to recognize her child’s unique traits amidst the herd.

Turns out human mothers aren’t all that different.

When a mother first touches her baby’s skin and feels its limbs, observes the ways in which the child resembles her and its father, and listens to its cries, she’s engaging in the time-honoured tradition of “claiming behaviours.”

These actions help bond mother and child, and the benefits go both ways.

For the mother, it subconsciously cements the child as her own, increases her maternal instinct, and gives her more confidence in caring for her child afterwards. According to Parenting.com, one study showed that after spending just 10 minutes with their babies, 90% of mothers were able to identify their own child just by smell. Also, allowing the baby to begin breastfeeding within the first hour after birth stimulates the production of oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” in the mother, facilitating bonding and much-needed relaxation after the difficult labour. Oxytocin also has addictive feel-good qualities, meaning that it helps the mother become biologically hardwired to protect her baby.

Related: How can someone give birth without knowing they were pregnant?

Claiming behavior is good for the baby as well, lessening stress and even helping with brain development. A Canadian study measured premature newborns’ pain following medical procedures and found that within two minutes, babies that were held by their mothers were in half as much pain as those in incubators. It also gave mothers a very real opportunity to comfort and bond with their babies.

Deepak Chopra writes of the baby-mother bond that it nourishes “the baby, through touch, through smell, through sensual delight. It creates pleasure, but also increases trust and the bond of love and a deeper understanding between the baby and the mother.” Although it may be more difficult to introduce skin-to-skin contact in C-section scenarios, it’s not impossible and may just require some additional preparation. Of course, you should follow your doctor’s advice on whether mother and baby are well enough after birth to enjoy skin-to-skin contact.

This emphasis on skin-to-skin contact is a big part of “kangaroo care,” so-named for how kangaroos carry their young in pouches even after birth. It started as a way of caring for premature babies in an underfunded Columbian hospital in the late ‘70s and promoted warming babies by keeping them on their mother’s chest and exclusively breastfeeding them. It’s become a globally-practiced technique that encourages maximal skin-to-skin contact between mothers (or fathers) and their babies. According to Biosociology: An Emerging Paradigm, “while in contact with the mother the infant’s systems are kept at a regular tempo. But apart, the newborn must work doubly hard to maintain physiological harmony.”

Related: Creative ways to announce you’re pregnant

Perhaps most impressive are the immunological effects of a mother’s touch. When they kiss their babies, mothers are, in essence, tasting them. Through kissing, the mother senses whatever dangerous pathogens might be lurking on their baby’s skin, and therefore might end up in their baby’s system. Tailor-made antibodies for these exact pathogens are then produced in the mother’s body and passed on to the child through her breast milk. In fact, during the first few days after birth, a mother produces colostrum, which is lower in calories and nutrition than mature breast milk, but rich in white blood cells and antibodies that protect the newborn from infection while its immune system and digestive tract are still developing.

A study by the Developmental Psychobiology Research Group at the University of Colorado Medical Center found that monkeys separated from their mothers even briefly ceased production of leukocytes, which are necessary to prevent infection.

But fathers and other caregivers shouldn’t be left out of the picture. We’ve long known that women are able to recognize their babies from their cries, but a study published earlier this year shows that fathers are just as attuned to their child’s cries, provided that they spend at least four hours a day with them. Men’s oxytocin levels also surge following the birth of their child, and the more they cuddle their baby, the more their oxytocin increases.

In days of yore, babies would quickly be ushered away from their mothers and handed to wet-nurses, who would also take over breastfeeding duties. We’ve come a long way since then, and women today are recognizing the impact of interacting with their babies on both the mother and the child’s emotional and physical well-being. Who knew that a mother’s hug really is the best medicine.

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Alexandra Grigorescu

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