The loving touch of a mother can make all the difference

Harold Mandel's picture
Mother and child

In our ever more technologically oriented world the loving touch of a mother remains among the most significant factors for the healthy emotional development of the brain of a child. Of course good nutrition, nice clothes, a nice place to live and play time are all important for the healthy development of the brain of a child. However, all of this may not offer us the dividends we would like to see without the loving touch of a mother.

There is actually a scientific explanation for how a mother's warm touch helps a baby's brain develop well. Maternal preterm skin-to-skin contact has been found to enhance child physiologic organization and cognitive control, reports Biological Psychiatry.

Researchers have found organization of the infant’s physiological systems, including stress reactivity, autonomic functioning, and sleep patterns, is enhanced by maternal newborn contact. Contact between the mother and newborn also supports maturation of the prefrontal cortex and its ensuing effects on cognitive and behavioral control.

There is a disruption of brain development with premature birth, which is associated with maternal separation and disturbances of normal contact sensitive systems. Researchers wanted to determine if the provision of maternal preterm contact can improve the long term functioning of these systems.

The researchers set up a clinical experimental setting wherein maternal–newborn skin-to-skin contact, known as Kangaroo Care (KC) intervention, was given to 73 premature infants for 14 consecutive days. 73 case-matched control subjects just received standard incubator care. These children were than followed for the first decade of life with various aspects of their development assessed, including:

1: Physiologic health

2: Cognitive health

3: Parental mental health

4: Mother–child relational measures

The results of this study were interesting. Kangaroo Care (KC) intervention had many positive effects, including:


1: Increased autonomic functioning (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA)

2: Increased maternal attachment behavior in the postpartum period

3: Reduced maternal anxiety

4: Enhanced child cognitive development and executive functions from 6 months to 10 years.

The researchers concluded that long-term effects of early touch-based intervention on physiologic organization and behavioral control of children have salient implications for the care practices of premature infants. The dynamic cascades of child physiological regulation and parental provisions in helping to shape developmental outcome of kids was demonstrated and may help with the development of more targeted early interventions.

This new study shows the benefit that premature infants may gain from skin-to-skin contact with their mothers is measurable even 10 years after their birth, as discussed in a review of this research on Jan. 6, 2014 by Elsevier. It is essential for babies to have physical contact for good physical and psychological development. It has been observed that infants who are neglected in hospitals and orphanages often develop many problems, ranging from depression to a more extensive failure to thrive.

In this study, Dr. Ruth Feldman, who is a professor at Bar-Ilan University, and her colleagues, studied the impact of different levels of physical contact on premature babies. Dr. Feldman has said, “In this decade-long study, we show for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children's functioning ten years later in systems shown to be sensitive to early maternal deprivation in animal research."

The researchers compared standard incubator care to a novel intervention which is called Kangaroo Care (KC). KC in essence uses the mother’s body heat to keep their babies warm. It was observed that during the first half-year of life, mothers in the KC group were more sensitive and they expressed more maternal behavior toward their infants. The kids in the KC group showed better cognitive skills and executive abilities in repeated testing from six months to ten years. At ten years of age the kids who received maternal contact as infants were doing much better in many significant parameters of development.

Dr. John Krystal, who is the editor of Biological Psychiatry, has said, “This study reminds us once again of the profound long-term consequences of maternal contact. The enhanced level of stimulation provided by this contact seems to positively influence the development of the brain and to deepen the relationship between mother and child.”

This has important implications because premature birth is a major health concern worldwide. About 12 percent of infants are born prematurely in industrial societies and significantly more in developing countries. Many of these kids suffer long-term cognitive difficulties and problems in neurobiological systems which support stress regulation and the organization of arousal and attention. Kangaroo Care could help these kids.

I generally perceive of a natural maternal instinct in good mothers. They are always searching for advice to help nurture their kids better. Most of the advice on helping kids develop well deals with good nutrition, which is vital for the healthy development of the babies brain. A mother's warm touch also helps a child develop well, and we now have a scientific explanation for this.

It's true that all kinds of stimulation may help a well nourished baby's brain develop well, such as music and the sights and sounds of TV shows and online videos and games. However, we should not make our kids into kids who were raised by computers and TV sets by just leaving them watching these all day. Time should also be taken for a mother to show her affection for her child with some warm touching. There's no doubt about it, nurturing from mom helps a child's brain develop, reports EmaxHealth reporter Kathleen Blanchard, RN.