Good news for all of us with that one friend or family member who likes to scold us for "spoiling" our babies by holding them too often: According to science, you can't ever cuddle your newborn too much.
Touch is crucial to a baby's development and actually has some pretty major benefits when it comes to brain development as well. And in fact, the original studies on mammal development demonstrated that primate babies would prefer physical closeness over trying to find food—for babies, touch is literally life-saving.
Ongoing research only continues to prove the importance of touch in human development: a 2020 study found infant-caregiver physical closeness activates oxytocin as well as certain nerve fiber pathways. Other similar studies on the closeness between caregiver and infant have found that touch helps develop communication, and enhances the caregiver's ability to respond to their baby, bonding, secure attachments, and neurodevelopment.
In a 2017 study, researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio observed 125 premature and full-term infants to see how they responded to gentle touch, like the kind they would get cuddling with a parent vs. how they responded to touch from things that are not-so-gentle, like having a medical procedure done or getting an IV put in.
The study revealed that infants who were touched gently, in the "good" way showed more brain response than the infants who received touch stimuli in "bad" ways. In other words, the type of touch matters to babies, and more importantly, infants who receive plenty of cuddling and loving touches will have brains that develop more effectively than babies who do not.
Basically, the research boils down to this: stay physically close to your babies, especially premature babies and newborns as often as possible. Wear them, cuddle with them, or do skin-to-skinwith them. Because in the study, the premature babies who had an increased amount of gentle touch from their parents and/or NICU caregivers actually responded more strongly to gentle touch than the premature babies who weren't touched or held as often.
Which, according to the lead researcher in the 2017 study, Dr. Nathalie Maitre, is proof that gentle, supportive touch can actually help brain development. (So I guess all those hours I spent every day rocking my newborn baby girl in the chair next to her incubator paid off!)
"Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother's womb," she explained. "When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting."
A great idea. And in fact, Dr. Maitre and her colleagues are working to design new ways to provide positive touch in the NICU. In the meantime, go ahead and cradle your baby to your heart's content. Because your touch matters, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.
Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her onInstagramandTwitter.