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What is skin hunger and how does it affect babies?

by Natasha Jacquot
Baby smiling and lying on front with adult hands in contact with its back

You’ll have no doubt heard of the benefits of skin-to-skin contact with your baby.  And why it is so important to babies in those magic few hours immediately after birth. But, do you know about skin hunger? And what it means for the ongoing development of babies?

COVID-19 has sharpened our appreciation of touch as a primal urge. Many of us understand instinctually what skin hunger is– it’s that sense of yearning for physical comfort that some of our community (especially the older generations) are now desperately missing.

When it comes to babies, scientists have spent several decades catching up with what mammals have always instinctively known and done. Caressing, holding, cuddling and even licking, research confirms, are profound and elemental communication tools with lots of benefits.

A review on the effect of human touch on babies, concluded that stimulation and touch promotes healthy and normal physical, emotional and behavioural development in babies. The Canadian paediatric review, considered a range of touching, from simple holding through to massage and skin-to-skin contact, with benefits said to include faster weight gain, improved sleep, and reduced anxiety and stress.

Perhaps surprisingly, research now shows that mother-infant touch and contact offers even more than these short-term benefits.  As recently as earlier this year, Florida Atlantic University found it’s also absolutely essential for properdevelopment of brain regulation in babies.

Even for some premature babies, research has shown benefits and some hospitals, such as the Queensland Children’s Hospital, use trained volunteers to cuddle sick babies when parents aren’t at hand.

Not that parents need science degrees to understand there’s something intrinsically right about close physical contact with babies. It just makes sense that a newborn, having just emerged from a warm and snug environment, would find skin-to-skin contact and the sound of another’s heartbeat familiar and comforting.

Interestingly, even during COVID-19, the World Health Organization has continued to recommend breastfeeding and the placement of newborns skin-to-skin next to their mothers. In their update on breastfeeding during the pandemic, WHO reiterated the multiple benefits of skin-to-skin contact and kangaroo mother care. Its list includes facilitation of breastfeeding, regulation of body heat, blood sugar level control and mother-infant bonding. It also mentioned lower rates of behavioural problems in the child and higher quality parental interaction.

WHO felt that COVID-19 in babies and children represented a much lower threat to their health than other the infections breastfeeding helps protect against.

And what about your needs, mama? What if 2020 is leaving you low and anxious and separated from your usual support network?

Professor Tiffany Field of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute suggests that we give ourselves a hug, swing or rub our legs and do anything to get our skin moving.

“The effects of touch are physiological, bioelectrical and biochemical,” she told The Independent newspaper in May. By stimulating the skin, for example through hugging, massage and exercise, we can stimulate pressure receptors and ultimately help to calm the nervous system.

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About Musluv

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I'm Natasha, creator of the musluv sun cover. We are passionate about helping parents protect their babies’ skin, with our musluv muslin wraps and through the content on our blog.

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