Skinship: Better Bonding with Baby
Where infants are concerned, America is considered a “low-touch” society. In many other cultures, babies are held for hours, stroked when in need of soothing, and carried close to the bodies of their mothers. In ours, babies spend lengthy periods alone in cribs; we fear that unless they’re allowed to “selfsoothe,” they’ll be spoiled and grow up dependent; and, though we may carry our infants, they’re more likely to be “containerized” than carried body-to-body.
And, oh, how today’s society loves its containers! Recent evidence indicates infants are spending upwards of sixty waking hours a week in things. In high chairs and walkers. Playpens and portable cribs. Plastic seats, bouncy seats, and seats that swing. And we push them in strollers until they’re four or five years old! All of this translates into little time spent holding, playing with, or simply touching our babies.
What parents need to know is that, of the five senses, touch is the most sensitive and well-developed at birth. Numerous studies have proven—and what parents in other cultures seem to know instinctively—is that touch isn’t just something “nice” for baby; it’s absolutely essential—to bonding, to growth and development, and to present and future emotional well-being.
Parents may believe that by allowing their babies “alone time,” they’re helping them grow up to be independent individuals. The irony is that babies who are touched, played with, and carried near the body tend to have stronger bonds with their mothers —and the resulting secure attachment means a less dependent, more self-reliant child in the long run. Studies have also shown that most-touched babies are less prone to later physical violence and more prone to be trusting, confident, and resilient.
Babies, for the sake of their motor and cognitive development, also need to move! When they spend too much time containerized, they never strengthen their muscles—to lift and turn their heads, to push up on their arms, to develop optimal balance, stability, and motor skills. Early movement experiences are also considered essential to the neural stimulation (the “use-it-orlose-it” principle involved in the keeping or pruning of brain cells) needed for healthy brain development.
Writes Dr. Sharon Heller, in The Vital Touch: “Every caress, stroke, hug, squeeze, and playful game; all the rocking, swaying, swinging, spinning; all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our baby’s world—all feed our infant’s need for sensory input and spark the neurons in her brain to grow and branch out to encompass other neurons.”
In Japan, the closeness between mother and child is so much a part of the culture that there’s a word for it: skinship. Parents in our country may never have heard of it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t practice it—by freeing babies from containers whenever possible, holding them, rocking them, and making plenty of eye contact. By playing with them—which it’s never too early to do.
Not surprisingly, the assumption is that, until the infant is at least able to creep, play and movement experiences are severely limited. But that’s just not so. There are many ways babies can move and play without the ability to transport themselves from place to place. And children learn to play just as they learn to walk and talk —by having it modeled and by experiencing and practicing it. Games like peekaboo and pattycake have survived for generations because they offer so much of what a baby needs. Peekaboo provides bonding in the way of eye contact and laughter, and it teaches the child about object permanence (things don’t disappear simply because we can’t see them). Pattycake provides physical touch and gives babies a chance to cross the vertical midline of the body, which requires that the two hemispheres of the brain communicate across the corpus callosum. This is later critical to, among other things, reading and writing skills. When you play “This Little Piggy” with your baby, you’re again offering physical touch and laughter, with a healthy dose of body awareness thrown in. Holding your baby and gently swaying—preferably skin to skin—provides vestibular stimulation (the sense of balance and motion) and soothes both of you. Even making funny faces contributes to development. When baby imitates, she is learning through observation and developing communication skills.
Bonding is a long-term, ongoing process. When you stroke, hold, and lovingly play with a baby, you’re providing him with a sense of security and trust. A baby feels wanted and loved and worthy. And, as an added bonus, all of this contributes to physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Parents only want the best for their children. As such, they’ve been quick to embrace the claims of the makers of infant software (“lapware”), CDs with “special” music, and flashcards in multiple languages. In our high-tech, fast-paced society, we turn readily and hopefully to the latest gadgets and gear promised to give our babies a “head start” on brain and motor development. But the simple truth is that babies don’t need fancy gadgets and gear. The best we have to offer them is what their brains were “hardwired” for before birth. It’s free and accessible to all. It’s touch and movement and play. It’s skinship.
Rae Pica has been a children’s physical activity specialist for 25 years. She is the author of 15 books, including the text Experiences in Movement, the Moving & Learning Series, and Your Active Child, written for the parents of children birth to eight. She is also the author of Kids in Action, a booklet of movement activities parents can do at home with their children. E-mail her at email@example.com.