Dads as important as mums in physical contact with babies, says VUB researcher


A new study shows that the physiological and emotional benefits of touch from new fathers do not differ from that of new mothers

A touching discovery

The importance of fathers in physical contact with infants is highly underestimated, according to research carried out by VUB professor Martine Van Puyvelde. She and her Liverpool University colleague have published the results of their study in the magazine Frontiers in Physiology.

It has long been known that an abundance of physical contact with babies is crucial to their emotional, physical and psychological development. Touch sets off many physiological mechanisms in babies, such as a lower heart-rate and slower, steadier breathing. These mechanisms are key in the development of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ability to rest and recuperate.

Since it’s the mother who carries the baby until birth, she is usually the parent associated with the benefits of physical contact. The VUB study has now shown that contact with fathers is equally beneficial.

“While fathers are much more involved than they were in the past, we see that they are still hesitant to begin taking part in active care of the baby,” said Van Puyvelde. “People always think that mothers have a physiological head-start with the baby, and this idea makes fathers self-conscious. But that is really not necessary.”

These kinds of studies also offer insights into the impact of longer periods of social and physical deprivation

- Martine Van Puyvelde

Van Puyvelde and her colleague tested babies’ responses to the touch of both parents and found no difference in the calming effect. They also noted that each parent intuitively stroked the baby in the same way and in the same places.

This specific way of touching or stroking stimulate the C tactile neurons, specialized receptors in the skin that respond to soft, pleasant touch. These neurons send information to the brain about the touch, connecting with areas of the brain that regulate bodily responses. This makes them extremely important in the development of a baby’s brain.

“In addition, these kinds of studies offer insights into the impact of longer periods of social and physical deprivation,” said Van Puyvelde. “For example, we just completed a study in which it appeared that a four-week programme of daily structured touch in babies significantly increased their resistance to stress compared to the babies who did not go through this programme.”

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