Touch: Babies' First Language

Ethnographers have long noted a striking phenomenon: Inuit and African babies generally tend to be much calmer than western babies. In fact, they cry very little – certainly much less than babies in much of the rest of the world.

Much of the difference seems to be that these babies are held constantly. Mothers carry their infants with them throughout the day, while they work. As a result, they learn to communicate directly with their mothers through touch while being carried on their mothers’ chests and backs. An Inuit baby, for example, is bundled skin-to-skin on her mothers back, and lets her mother know that she is hungry by nuzzling, rooting, and sucking against her mother’s skin.

To westerners, this quiet communication seems remarkable. Many of us believe that babies communicate by crying. But for the Inuit as for many African peoples, a baby communicates by touch – not by crying.

Could it be that babies will cry less if they’re touched more?

Research suggests that this may well be the case. By increasing hours of mother-baby physical contact, researchers found exactly that: babies who were carried more cried less.

Physical contact is essential to optimal early childhood development. Skin-to-skin contact between a parent and a child stimulates healthy brain activity in infants. Babies develop trust in their caregivers and they develop a sense of security when they are picked up quickly when they cry. The more a baby knows she can trust us to meet her needs, the healthier, more trusting, and happier she is likely to be.

In many ways, touch is our first language. Touch can help small babies grow stronger, and help troubled children feel less anxious. Each time you pick up your baby, you let her know that you care and that you understand her needs.

Hold a crying baby. Carry her on your shoulder and hip. Sing her a lullaby. Stroke her head. Tenderly rub her back and let her know you’ll always be there.

Caring, appropriate touch is one of the key needs of all human beings, and we support their optimal development when we ensure that our children have frequent opportunities for nurturing, loving touch in their lives.