WHEN A BABY IS BORN, PARENTS QUICKLY CHECK for fingers and toes, and over the next few weeks remain alert to whether the baby can see and hear. When babies nurse well, parents are assured that the sense of taste and smell are fine. But what about touch? This important sense is often overlooked.

Reacting to Touch

Part of the doctor's exam at birth is to touch the baby in certain ways to elicit reflexes. This includes stroking the bottom of the foot and watching to see that the toes curl downward normally rather than flare outward. A mother notices the rooting reflex when she strokes the baby's cheek on the side near her breast and the baby turns toward that side in order to nurse easily. The grasp reflex can be seen during the first three months when an adult firmly presses her finger onto a baby's palm and the baby grasps the finger.

Crowing Through Touch

Touch is a crucial sense for babies. Studies of animals reveal that when mothers stroke and cuddle their babies, or lick them with long tongue strokes, the skin releases chemicals that promote the infant's physical development.

Research with premature babies has shown that when nurses provide gentle massages to babies' bodies several times a day, those babies gain weight faster and are released from the hospital several days earlier than premies who had not been massaged. Further research also shows that loving touch massages permit young children to fall asleep faster and more easily.

The Magic of Touch

Touch is a magical ingredient that promotes healthy growth. Indeed, for tiny babies, schools will do well to use "kangaroo" baby care. Teachers who care for very young infants can use the kangaroo pouch so that babies feel their body warmth and benefit from the gentle stimulation of an adult's body movements. Baby skin is delicate. Because skin touch is so important, teachers will need to be alert to skin disturbances, such as diaper rash, eczema, and cradle cap. With gentle touches, teachers can handle delicate infant skin and soothe any discomfort.

Sensitivity to Touch

Some children have sensory-integration difficulties when it comes to touch. That is, some babies become irritable if stroked too softly. Teachers need to become attuned to each infant's level of comfort. It is important to determine whether firmer pats for burping and firmer strokes for back rubs are needed to stay soothed.

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