- Be In Touch With Baby's Physical, Emotional Health

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Be In Touch With Baby's Physical, Emotional Health

      Do you touch your baby enough?

      That may seem like a silly question. Who, after all, can resist that velvety skin? Still, just at a time when researchers are discovering more and more emotional as well as medical benefits from touch, they are also finding that young children are getting touched less than ever.

      They have some pretty good ideas why, too.

      For one, ``Babies are spending too much time in infant seats,'' says brain development researcher Lise Eliot of Chicago Medical School.

      She''s talking about the portable baby seats that fit both car and carriage and also serve as a free-standing carrier. They''re increasingly popular because you can move a sleeping baby without waking him, giving parents increased mobility.

      The convenience has a cost, however. In the simple motion of lifting a baby from stroller to car or vice versa, there''s often a quick kiss or big smile, some close contact with mom or dad''s face, voice and body warmth.

      ``Eliminating that is a loss,'' says Eliot, who is author of ``What''s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life'' (Bantam, 2000).

      What''s more, every time a baby is moved without being lifted from the carrier, it''s one less chance for neck and abdominal muscles to get exercise and for vestibular stimulation, which helps develop a sense of balance.

      Psychologist Tiffany Field, the nation''s leading touch researcher, tells parents to use the portable seats sparingly, especially for babies younger than 6 months, and to not abandon front- or back-pack baby carriers. ``Most infants prefer to be in contact with you, to smell and feel you,'' she says. It''s a matter of emotional security as well as sensory stimulation.

      There''s also a decrease in physical contact between adults and children in day care and preschool because directors are fearful of lawsuits.

      ``Teachers are being mandated to hold hands with children rather than pick them up or carry them or hug them,'' says Field, who often consults with preschools on how teachers can continue to touch children without getting into trouble. In addition, she sees teachers who aren''t putting preschoolers on the potty enough because of the intimate physical contact that involves. Field is director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami.

      The benefits of touch began to surface about a decade ago when Field found that preemies were more likely to thrive if they had skin-to-skin contact with mom or dad. Known as ``kangaroo care,'' where a premature baby is carried inside a parent''s clothing, the practice is now used widely around the country. Meanwhile, data shows advantages to all babies from touch.

      ``At birth, touch is the most highly developed sense, with biological and psychological benefits,'' says child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, a professor at George Washington University Medical School.

      That recognition has led to changes. Two years ago, for instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended using analgesic during circumcision, recanting a long-held position that infant pain is only a reflexive reaction.

      Touch is often what is missing in children diagnosed with failure to thrive. ``They aren''t growing or developing, but they are not physically ill in any way that is recognizable,'' says Eliot. ``Usually, tender loving care brings them around.''

      She says an infant should be held for a portion of every waking hour but not 100 percent of the time. ``When they''re awake, babies need tummy time to strengthen upper-body muscles,'' Eliot says.

      Greenspan says touch is critical because it''s the only sense that accomplishes three things babies need: It provides a sense of security and safety through cuddling, engages them with the human world, and begins the process of back and forth communication.

      ``If you touch them in a spot they like, they smile in return and get more touches,'' he says.

      All this attention on touch has pushed infant massage out of the ``alternative care'' category and into the mainstream. Massage therapist Denise Borrelli of Medford, Mass., for example, has been teaching infant massage to parents for nine years. Five years ago, she taught one or two classes a year; this year, she''ll have three classes during the winter alone.

      Field credits massage with improving immune systems and solving such pediatric problems as fussiness and colic. ``It also forges a unique bond, putting you in tune with your baby''s body,'' she says.

      Massage also has practical advantages. If you rock your baby to sleep, chances are she''ll wake up as you move her to the crib. If you massage her, she''s already in the crib. In one study comparing rocking to massage, Field says, babies fell asleep faster, and their sleep was deeper after massage.

      She recommends beginning to massage newborns at a week old, using elongated circular stroking and light pressure, not tickles. ``Infants don''t like tickles,'' she says.

      Vimala McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage, says baby massage is nothing like massages adults get, allaying concerns parents may have about hurting their fragile baby. Furthermore, babies let you know if it''s too much pressure by grimacing or crying, she adds.

      Of all the benefits McClure has seen from infant massage, none amazes her more than watching colic disappear when parents use a massage routine two times a day for three weeks.

      ``If the baby happens to be having a spell when you massage, it''s not fun for anybody,'' she says, ``but you get to the point where the baby cooperates with you, helping to move her body. It''s wonderful to watch.'' She is author of ``Infant Massage, A Handbook for Loving Parents,'' revised edition (Bantam).

c.2000 The Boston Globe

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