The Magic of Touch

By Bonnie Baker Cowan

Is there anything more heart-tugging than holding and snuggling a new baby? Obviously they come with that unique smell and silky skin to capture our heart immediately and forever.

The good news is that as grandparents, we can hold and touch that baby as much as we want. In fact, the more the better. Unlike beliefs of generations before us, we cannot ‘spoil’ a baby by holding her too much.

Back in the early 1900s, ‘no coddling’ was a popular belief. But a study done by American scientist Dr. Henry Dwight Chapin found that a group of infants in foundling homes who were given adequate food and care, but no cuddling and holding, died before reaching the age of two. They needed to be touched and held in order to survive. And, Mary D Salter Ainsworth, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia found, in studying a group of mothers and infants, that the babies who were touched and held frequently cried the least, even when they were left in their cribs.

A new study from University College in London England finds that even unborn children,  as early as 35 weeks in the pregnancy, can distinguish pain from touch.

So go ahead and hold that new grand-baby. Holding and touching him assures him that his new world is a safe place he can trust. Making sure he has lots of skin contact with another human being will help him thrive. A teddy bear is not the same.

Although babies cannot tell one face from another right after birth, holding them and making them feel safe is important.

While as new grandparents we’re often nervous about holding the new baby, it’s important to speak in a soothing voice and try to relax. Babies sense nervousness and will respond more positively if they feel safe in your arms.

Certainly grandparents won’t be on the front line when it comes to bonding. The parents get to feel the love of a baby first. But if you’re lucky enough to see your grandchild frequently, she will soon learn to recognize your voice and face.

Physical touching is not just essential for babies to thrive. It’s essential for children of all ages as they grow. Holding them as toddlers and hugging them until they are old enough to be embarrassed is important in making them feel secure and in raising their self esteem. That’s true of both boys and girls.

Some grandfathers in our Zoomer generation may have been raised to believe that hugging, especially a grandson, is not appropriate.  Nancy of Kirkland Lake, Ontario recalls an incident when her husband Nick was picking up their eight-year-old grandson from his soccer game. “Paul had fallen in the game and scraped his knee,” she explains. “Nick had a first aid kit in the car and cleaned up his knee, but when they arrived home, Paul looked glum. I realized what was missing in the first aid treatment— a hug.” Nick’s response when Nancy chastised him was “He’s too old for hugs. He needs to toughen up.”

Undoing the mores of our own upbringing isn’t easy, but not impossible. Ray, a grandfather from Calgary learned to give hugs from his grand-daughters. “I grew up in a family where there was absolutely no physical contact,” he says. “But my grand-daughters are constantly jumping into my arms when they visit and squeezing the daylights out of me. I have to admit I’ve become used to it. In fact, I look forward to those hugs now.”

Hugs are good for everyone—grandchildren, grown children and definitely grandparents. A hug from a grandchild makes us feel the world is a safe place too.