During the first year of life infants use their senses to focus attention and learn what is meaningful in their environment. Whether it is the sound of a voice saying their name or outreached arms when they near, multisensory input provides infants with the building blocks needed to form emotional attachments, learn language, and to navigate the world.
The science behind the role of the visual and auditory systems in early learning and cognition has far outpaced our knowledge of the role of the somatosensory system – or touch – for infant development. Although touch is the first sense to develop in the womb and seems straightforward when we think of babies – cuddling, kissing, holding – it can be measured in many ways (e.g., pressure, temperature, pain, movement) and can be positive or negative (e.g., a hug or a spank).
An intervention study out of Israel measured the long-term benefits of maternal touch in the NICU and several developmental outcomes. The intervention, called Kangaroo Care (KC), involved placing the baby between the mother’s breasts while still attached to the cardiorespiratory monitor, one hour per day for 14 days. The safety and benefit of this intervention to neuromaturation during the neonatal period and mother-infant bonding in early infancy is well supported. The researchers compared children who did participate in Kangaroo Care as a premature baby to a control group of children who did not.