The Newborn Senses: Touch

Dive Deeper
This baby gets skin time with his mother. The affectionate touch will reduce his stress hormone levels. (Image Credit: Science Source)

After birth, a baby receives strong social and emotional signals from the touch of her caregivers. In fact, when researchers touched sleeping babies on the leg with gentle, slow strokes, it activated parts of the brain that specifically process social and emotional information.1 Other experiments show that affectionate contact can soothe pain in newborns and protect babies from the adverse effects of prenatal stress.2 Furthermore, babies whose caregivers touched them frequently show greater emotional resilience and less negativity as they grow up.3 Taken together, cuddling a newborn promotes the child’s future emotional health.

However, babies need more social interaction than touch alone. Infants notice how parents touch them as well. In one experiment, researchers randomly assigned newborns to one of two interactions. Half of the babies were stroked by a silent caregiver for 15 minutes, and the other babies were stroked by the same caregiver for 15 minutes in combination with eye contact and soothing speech. The babies who received affectionate touch in combination with eye contact and soothing speech were comforted. They showed a drop in stress hormone levels, but the babies who were stroked in isolation showed a surge in stress hormone levels.4

Touch as a way to learn

After birth, babies don’t just gain emotional benefits from touch, they also explore their world and strengthen brain connections by grasping objects and feeling different textures with their fingers. In fact, babies use their sense of touch to fill in information about what an object looks like.

In the early 2000s, a group of researchers found that newborns can infer the appearance of an object simply by touching it. Experimenters handed the babies one of two objects – a solid wooden cylinder, or a wooden prism with a triangular base.5 The baby could not see what they were touching. Would newborns be able to visually recognize the object they had held in their hands?

Amazingly, they could. In trial after trial, the babies acted as if they recognized the object that they had already handled, and instead focused on the new object — whatever shape they had not previously touched. Conversely, when the babies first looked at the objects and then were allowed to play with the objects using touch alone, they did not act like either object was more familiar than the other.6 These results suggest that infants use touch to help them understand visual information. Therefore, when a baby touches his caregiver’s face, he may be learning how to recognize it visually.

(Image Credit: Science Source)