Cuddling therapy, anyone?

Babies are born with needs for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation, and movement — urgent and intense — and yet, depend completely on others to meet them.

Nurturing touch is a way to meet all of these needs at once.

Mothers and fathers are encouraged to provide ample nurturing touch from birth on to promote the healthiest child development. But what about newborns born premature or ill, who must remain in the hospital long-term?

Some hospital units, like St. Michael’s in Toronto, Canada, featured in the video below, train and provide volunteers who hold, sing to, and love on in-patient babies. These volunteers are aptly called Cuddlers.

The newborns may have been born premature or have medical needs that require them to stay in the NICU. Or, these babies may have been born to mothers with mental health or addiction issues. Some of these babies may be suffering from drug withdrawal or fetal alcohol syndrome.

But all of these babies benefit from nurturing touch and affection. The medical community notes that hospitalized babies gain weight faster, have improved infant mental health, and typically shorter hospital stays.

The power of nurturing touch on child behavior

When we think of providing nurturing touch, what most often comes to mind may be skin-to-skin with our newborn, babywearing, or infant massage.

Nurturing touch continues to be a critical need for children (and adults!) of all ages. We just have to be more intentional to make time for cuddles, hand-holding, hugs, massage, and other forms of nurturing touch with our walking, talking toddlers, busy school-agers, and autonomy-seeking teenagers.

This video, featuring London massage therapist Carol Trower, discusses her work in using massage in UK schools to reduce bullying and problem behaviors. Not only are these goals met, but the children who receive massage are also reportedly more connected to one another, express more empathy, and have improved academic performance.

It’s an inspiring message of the power of nurturing touch for child well-being:

Understanding sensory processing difficulties in our children

Many families discover Attachment Parenting in their quest for how to raise their “spirited” children.

All children, evident from birth on, have their own unique temperament. For some children, their temperament traits may be challenging for their parents or teachers. Common among these possible traits are sensory processing difficulties.

Children with difficulty in processing sensory experiences — sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell — connect to regions in their brain and/or nervous system that may be overly or under-sensitive to that particular sense. For example, my daughter has great difficulty with the feeling of water — her nervous system is hypersensitive to certain touch experiences. I even have sensory difficulties with certain sounds, touch experiences, and light brightness.

In my family’s case, our sensory processing difficulties have likely a genetic component. But children can also develop sensory processing difficulties from sensory deprivation experienced early in life, especially those in the foster care system, those who’ve been adopted, and those who’ve experienced a traumatic early childhood such as in cases of overt abuse or neglect.

However your “spirited” child came to develop sensory processing difficulties, this video from Empowered to Connect gives an excellent overview of what sensory processing is and how difficulties with sensory experiences can impact child behavior:


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The latest research in nurturing touch, breastsleeping and babywearing

adele grantWhat do you get when you bring together Dr. James McKenna, Dr. Kersten Moberg, Dr. Ann Bigelow, Dr. Henrik Norholt, Dr. Charles Price and Dr. Raylene Phillips?

You get the latest research on skin-to-skin, oxytocin, “breastsleeping,” bedsharing and all things babywearing presented at the first annual Bond Conference in New York City — which I was privileged to attend.

Here is some of the research I found to be most interesting:

Nurturing Touch

  • Infants are born with immature brains and therefore need skin-to-skin and tactile stimulation for their brains to grow.
  • Skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding are the means whereby the immature-term infant continues gestation outside the womb.
  • Skin-to-skin promotes oxytocin release in mom and is shown to improve breastfeeding rates and improve bonding with baby.
  • With elective cesareans, no oxytocin is released. Thus, it needs to be compensated for through skin-to-skin, massage, babywearing and breastfeeding. While Pitocin injections are used to bring on labor, it is very different to natural oxytocin because it only affects the uterus and does not affect the brain, which would lead to the feel good feelings and bonding.
  • Oxytocin release is especially critical in the early days and months. If it’s missing, such as in the Ukrainian orphans that were studied, it is much harder to form secure attachments later on. When mom and baby get close after birth, there is an oxytocin release — they feel good, because dopamine is being activated; they see this happening in the context of the other; and with repeated exposure, this trains the sympathetic nervous system to expect the same response, which leads to a secure attachment.
  • Prolonged exposure to oxytocin has long-term positive effects of reduced risk of stroke and many other illnesses.
  • Some women naturally have lower oxytocin levels. But the good news is that it can be compensated for with skin-to-skin, massage and breastfeeding.
  • Nerve reflexes of the skin trigger an oxytocin release. If triggered very early on, it will have lifelong effects. The front side of the body has extra sensory nerves with the chest being most sensitive.
  • Skin-to-skin could be used as a possible alternative treatment to depression. Mothers with skin-to-skin contact reported fewer depressive symptoms in the first few postpartum weeks.

Safe Sleep

  • The further babies get from mom (non-bedsharers or solitary sleepers in separate room), the fewer feeds there are. Bedsharing babies nurse or “snack” more, because breastmilk is digested faster.
  • Bedsharing and breastfeeding are positively correlated. Dr. McKenna suggests the term “breastsleeping,” as there is no such thing as an infant — only the mother-infant dyad — so there is no solitary sleeping and breastfeeding: only breastsleeping.
  • Approximately 70% of new parents were found to bedshare at least occasionally. This would equate to 2.5-2.9 million mothers if the study were representative of the larger population.
  • Bedsharing in the absence of other hazards was significantly protective for infants older than 3 months.
  • At age 6, babies who bedshared had increased cognitive capacities. Babies who cosleep and get more touch and reassurance become happier and less fearful toddlers who make friends easier and are cognitively more advanced. Then they become less fearful and more optimistic adolescents who trust their own judgment. As adults, they become parents mimicking their own experiences with their own children.

Responding with Sensitivity

  • Infants as young as 3 months are aware that their behaviors’ impact others. When mom does not respond to baby, the infant increases vocalizations to get mom’s attention.
  • Increasingly, orthopedists are seeing more hip issues. They believe this is because of widespread swaddling. The latest recommendation is to leave hips loose until baby is 3 months old. If a baby’s hip does become dislocated and is not treated by 6 months of age, the hip may need surgical intervention for proper development.
  • Parents should also be mindful of baby’s hip development when choosing a baby carrier. In the baby’s first 6 weeks of life, the joints are very loose and the hips should not be forced into extension. Side-carrying positions are ideal for proper hip development. After 6 months of age, the position doesn’t matter that much.

This is all such reassuring information, because it backs up what I intuitively did with my first child before I even found Attachment Parenting and what Attachment Parenting International promotes for all children and families.

With continued research from these and other medical and scientific professionals as well as parents providing support to other parents, Attachment Parenting practices like babywearing, keeping babies close by holding them, ensuring safe sleep by keeping babies and children close at night, and extended breastfeeding will become the new norm. This is at least my hope for all the children out there and what I strive to promote in my community.

Kangaroo Care an incredible part of newborn care

Rita and RachelToday, May 15, in observance of Kangaroo Care Awareness Day, Attachment Parenting International (API) honors all mothers and fathers who have given the gift of skin-to-skin contact to a newborn.

While Kangaroo Care was first promoted for its life-saving benefits to premature and at-risk infants, it has — since its discovery in 1980 in Colombia — become a mainstay in getting breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding off to a good start.

Skin-to-skin contact, as Kangaroo Care is also called, is more than just a nicety, though. It is essential for healthy infant development, as well as maternal well-being. It’s important that we recognize and promote this.

The benefits for baby include accelerated brain development; less crying; reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels; better regulated body temperature, heart rate and breathing; better quality sleep; enhanced immune system; stimulated digestion and therefore better weight gain; and more effective breastfeeding behavior.

Combine this with the benefits for mother — decreased risk of postpartum depression, increased milk production, increased pain tolerance, and reduced postpartum bleeding, cortisol levels and blood pressure — and skin-to-skin contact looks to be an incredibly important part of newborn care!

Kangaroo Care has a special place in my heart. It was through this simple practice — undress baby to the diaper and place on mom’s, or dad’s, bare chest — that was my introduction to Attachment Parenting. Kangaroo Care helped me to bond with my preemie and was the first domino to tip in the trajectory of my parenting journey. If the nurses hadn’t suggested Kangaroo Care, and instead left my baby in the incubator in those early days when my sense of motherhood was most fragile and yet impressionable, I don’t know what approach to parenting I might have adopted but I do know that it would have taken me much longer to get to the current place in my parenting journey.

I have now come full circle.

In my work of supporting parents, I routinely suggest skin-to-skin contact to both mothers and fathers, whether or not they plan to breastfeed. Nurturing touch is not only powerful in the beginning chemistry of attachment, including bonding and breastfeeding, but also in gently moving even the most obstinately detached parents toward an attachment-based family dynamic — courtesy of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for that intoxicating feel-good state of mind that comes with Kangaroo Care.

How parents bond with their infant can make a huge difference in that child’s life. Kangaroo Care, for both preterm and full-term babies, is a way to positively influence that initial bond.

Highlighted API Resources on Kangaroo Care

Mayim-Bialik-Photo-APIAttachment Parenting” with actress Mayim Bialik, an API Teleseminar — recordings only $9 each!

Developing Emotional Attachments in Adopted Children” by API Cofounder Lysa Parker, coauthor of Attached at the Heart

From API’s magazine, The Attached Family:

The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact” by Dr. Jack Newman and Teresa Pitman, coauthors of The Latch and Other Keys to Breastfeeding Success

From API’s blog, APtly Said:

Kangaroo Care for every baby

Trial by fire

There’s a pause button, just in case

Kangaroo Care for every baby

Editor’s note: May 15 is Kangaroo Care Awareness Day, on observance designed to increase awareness of Kangaroo Care and skin-to-skin contact. This is one of the many ways that mothers and fathers and their babies can benefit from Attachment Parenting International‘s Fourth Principle of Parenting: Use Nurturing Touch.

unnamedToday is Kangaroo Care Awareness Day, a day we at NüRoo are proud to celebrate, as it highlights the importance and benefits of the practice of Kangaroo Care. More than 40 years of research has proven that in the early months of life, Kangaroo Care (KC) — also referred to as skin-to-skin contact — creates remarkable benefits for mom and baby.

KC is a method of holding your baby, who is only wearing a diaper, placed vertically on mom’s bare chest, creating full chest-to-chest contact. Holding your baby this way stimulates the C-afferent nerve, which produces a hormonal cascade, and — when practiced for an uninterrupted 
60 minutes — delivers incredible physiological and psychological benefits for both mom and baby.

The benefits for baby include:

  • Accelerated brain development
  • Reduction of cortisol (stress hormone) and crying
  • Regulation of body temperature, heart rate and breathing
  • Increase in quality of sleep
  • Enhanced immune system
  • Stimulation of digestion and weight gain
  • An increase in breastfeeding behavior.

Equally important, the practice offers benefits for mom that include:

  • A decreased risk of postpartum depression
  • Increased milk production
  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Higher levels of psychological well-being
  • Reduction in postpartum bleeding, cortisol levels and blood pressure.

Pretty amazing, right? Mother Nature truly has set us up with some incredible wiring!

Who coined the term “Kangaroo Care”?

KC originated in 1980 in Bogota, Colombia — a city with limited access to medical facilities and resources. In the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) there, babies lacked proper nutrition, mothers were often abandoning their children, and overcrowding and shared incubators were a common occurrence. Given these circumstances, 80% of all preterm infants born were failing to thrive. Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria and Dr. Hector Martinez introduced a method to alleviate the shortage of caregivers and lack of resources.

Rita and RachelThey witnessed a grandmother in a remote village holding her grandchild, under layers of clothing and wraps, tucked between her breasts on her bare skin. They commented that it was like a kangaroo carrying her joey in a pouch.

They were shocked to find the babies in this village were thriving! Returning back to their work, they implemented what they saw at a hospital where the average temperature was only 50 degrees F. They suggested that mothers have continuous skin-to-skin contact with their babies to better thermo-regulate and provide proper and continuous breastfeeding nutrition.

Over the course of their first year, they observed a 10% reduction in the mortality and morbidity rates simply by keeping mom and baby together. The incubators were no longer crowded, and with the increased bonding, fewer and fewer women were abandoning their children. The doctors presented their findings in 1983 at the first global conference of fetal neonatal medicine.

This became an “ah-ha” moment for the rest of the world.

How to do Kangaroo Care?

While Kangaroo Care is skin-to-skin contact, it’s important to know that proper placement of baby is vital to delivering the benefits of KC. While some moms will mention that they breastfeed several times a day — thereby holding baby directly to their bare skin — this position will not deliver the hormonal cascade, and all the resulting benefits of KC.

Similarly, there is a difference between full chest-to-chest, skin-to-skin contact and babywearing. To achieve the benefits of KC, you need to have direct contact of baby’s bare chest with direct contact of mom’s bare chest. Anything between you and the baby — even a bra — disturbs the C-afferent nerve stimulation. Cheek-to-chest contact is sweet as can be, but doesn’t deliver the physiologic benefits of KC.

To properly position baby for KC:

  1. Mom* should be completely topless — not even a bra —  and semi-reclined, with baby wearing only a diaper.
  2. Place baby in a vertical position directly against mom’s bare chest, with baby’s shoulders resting on or above her breasts.
  3. Cover baby with a blanket to keep warm. Baby’s head should be turned to one side with the neck straight, not flexed or extended. Make sure baby’s nose and mouth remain uncovered and you can see their face at all times.

NICUGentryTo gain all the benefits, baby needs to be skin-to-skin on your chest for an uninterrupted 60 minutes. While some of the benefits, 
such as regulation of baby’s body temperature and reduction of baby
’s post-procedural pain occur within minutes of KC, others — such as decreased levels of stress for mom and baby, increase 
in mom’s milk production or a healthy sleep cycle for baby — take longer.

*Note: KC is not just for biological mothers and their babies: Partners and adoptive parents, for instance, also reap the benefits of KC when the nerves on the chest are stimulated.

Can all babies do Kangaroo Care?

n14211043_37998228_9686-300x225While the practice of KC originated with preterm infants, it has been widely proven to be an important practice for all newborns, and as such, is recommended by leading health organizations such as the World Health Organization, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In fact, the AAP recently updated its recommendations, encouraging Kangaroo Care for every baby immediately following birth through their first three months of life, and as often as possible.

Nurturing touch restores security in adoptive families

sarah kucSome of my favorite parts of the day are when my husband and I get down on the floor with our sons to wrestle and play, hearing them belly laugh. Or when I lie down for sleep with two tired, little boys snuggled tight under my arms.

Since we started our adoption journey four years ago, we have received so much joy and love from our sons and their birth mothers. However, it’s bittersweet…for although it’s true that there are countless joys and benefits from building families through adoption, there’s also inherent sorrow and loss resulting from separation from their birth mothers — they who had comforted them in the womb and held them during those first wakeful moments.

For some adopted children, this loss of a birth mother can have profound effects on their sense of personal security and ability to trust others. Undertones of anxiety and apathy may affect their relationships with loved ones. Furthermore, children who have experienced prenatal and perinatal trauma and loss may display even stronger, more vivid emotions of fear or anger when exposed  to stress in the future. Adoptive parents, being aware of these potential challenges and facing them head-on, is one key to the child’s successful bonding, growth and development. 

When we brought our sons home from the hospital, we couldn’t verbally make them understand that both we and their birth mothers love them immensely. However, we could — and did — use nonverbal communication to express our love and commitment to them.

We did skin-to-skin contact, laying them on our skin and allowing us to connect without words. We also chose to respond quickly to their cries by holding them close and reassuring them that we will always come when they need us.

Babywearing became an essential aspect of early bonding, especially with our second son. Life became noticeably busier with two young children. Both need love and special attention, and babywearing allows me to keep my little one close while still freely interacting with my older son. I can provide simultaneous security to both of my children.

These forms of physical contact are categorized as nurturing touch by Attachment Parenting International (API). When words are difficult, as is the case with newborns and young children, nurturing touch transcends language while still communicating security and love. It involves everything from massage to physical play and can be as simple as putting your arm around your child while on the couch together.

As our sons continue to grow, we are finding other ways to deepen this connection. Our 3 year old loves to wrestle and pillow fight. Each night, we happily indulge him to meet his need for physical contact, helping him to build trust and confidence in us and himself. Later, at bedtime, I lay next to him and rub his back through stories and prayers. He craves this connecting, nurturing touch and the security of knowing that we love him immensely.

Parents can never undo the loss that some adopted children experience, but hiding or not acknowledging it can be detrimental to them. Being aware of these challenges and meeting them with
persistent affection and honesty can allow healing to take place.

My husband and I are so blessed to have two happy, spirited and loving sons. Looking back, I am confident that much of our boys’ smiles, laughter and love are due to our decision to follow API’s Eight Principles of Parenting. There is so much unique joy experienced in adoption, and connections formed through nurturing touch foster this joy — allowing our children to feel secure and build necessary, lasting trust in us.