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Touch is one of your baby's key senses, especially in the early weeks. It plays a vital role in helping you bond with your baby. It also helps your baby communicate his needs and wants, interact with other people, and explore his environment.
When does my baby's sense of touch develop?
The sense of touch begins to develop as early as 7 to 8 weeks of pregnancy.
By 11 weeks, your baby begins to make tiny movements in your womb. These movements mark your baby's first explorations as she feels her environment and her own body.
It's through touch that you first communicate and interact with your baby, as you hold, feed, cuddle, bathe, and soothe her. Later your baby uses her sense of touch to learn about the texture and shape of the world around her.
How does my baby's sense of touch develop?
Your baby's sense of touch begins in the womb and continues to develop and evolve during her first year and beyond.
Your baby is born with highly sensitive skin. Some of the areas of his body that are particularly sensitive to touch include his mouth, cheeks, face, hands, and abdomen, and the soles of his feet.
For a newborn baby, skin-to-skin contact is a vital part of bonding and communication. He's comforted by the feel of you touching his skin. He's also able to respond to touch with his grasping reflex.
If you stroke the palm of his hand, he'll curl his fingers around yours and grip them. Likewise, if you put an object in the palm of his hand, he can grip it. Most infant reflexes disappear as your baby gets older.
Your baby's mouth is highly sensitive too. He uses his mouth as another way of learning and exploring.
If you gently touch your baby's cheek, he'll turn his head in response and use his mouth to explore the source of the touch. This reaction is called the rooting reflex. When placed on your chest, he uses his mouth to find your nipple to latch on and feed.
At 1 month, your baby's hands are closed most of the time. But when they're open, she'll enjoy grasping your finger if you touch her palm.
2 to 3 months
Your baby enjoys the feel of your touch as you handle him. He begins to respond to friendly handling and gentle tickling. Your baby's tongue, lips, and mouth are very sensitive. When he chews on a soft toy, he's using them to investigate its feel and texture.
Your baby won't be able to pick things up for himself but will enjoy having things placed in his hand. He can notice the difference between hard and soft items.
As your baby's muscles grow and strengthen, especially in her arms and hands, she begins reaching out and touching objects.
Your baby lifts and holds, grasping them with both hands. But he still uses his mouth to feel textures.
He's likely to enjoy the sensation of being in water and, particularly, of splashing water in the bath.
Your baby's sense of touch is improving. She's learning to reach out and grasp objects with both hands, often passing them from hand to hand. She enjoys toys she can touch and interact with. Encourage this by introducing toys that make sounds when they're touched.
7 to 8 months
Your baby's spatial awareness is developing. Together with his sense of touch it enables him to tell the difference between flat and 3D objects. He'll enjoy touching objects with parts that can be grabbed (such as handles), twisted, or spun.
He may well be beginning to crawl (or bottom shuffle), giving him more access to objects to touch and explore for himself.
9 to 10 months
Your crawling baby is more mobile, and discovering new things to touch all the time – just make sure they're child-friendly and safe. She still uses her mouth to investigate objects.
She'll enjoy picking up objects and putting them into containers. Look for toys and objects that are colorful or have moving parts, such as levers, doors, or wheels that a baby can explore safely.
11 to 12 months
By the time he's a year old, your baby's exploring all sorts of textures – hard, soft, cold, wet, sticky, and squishy. He's not investigating objects so much with his mouth and is much more able to use his hands to touch and play with objects.
How can I soothe my baby with touch?
Gentle touch is one of the best ways to soothe and calm your baby. If your baby is fretful or crying, you can calm her by stroking her back.
Babies enjoy being held, caressed, stroked, rocked, and carried, as it's comforting and calming. Your baby will enjoy being close to you and sensing the familiar warmth, smell, sound, and feel of your body.
The power of touch is recognized in the use of "kangaroo care" – holding a newborn baby against your bare chest to maximize skin-to-skin contact. Studies have found that kangaroo care can improve your baby's oxygen levels, reduce crying, and improve sleep and breastfeeding.
The benefits don't just apply to your baby. They make moms and dads feel better too.
Close contact helps regulate your blood pressure and hormone levels. When you hold your baby close, you release oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. Studies have found that dads' oxytocin levels can rise too after contact with their baby.
Your baby may also enjoy being massaged. Regularly massaging your baby helps with the bonding process. It's something you and your partner can take turns with.
How can I stimulate my baby through touch?
You can use touch to stimulate your baby in a number of ways.
Play is important for learning and development. Playing with different toys or household objects can have many positive benefits and help stimulate your baby's development. (See age-appropriate baby activities for every week of your little one's first year.)
Look for different textures – smooth, rough, hard or soft – and toys that make noises, like rattles. Books incorporating textures are good, and you can explore the feel of fabrics, feathers, cardboard, or artificial fur. When your baby's old enough, you can introduce play with sand, clay, or water.
At first, you can simply open your baby's hand and stroke it with different textures. As he progresses, he'll want to pass items from hand to hand himself.
When your baby starts eating solids, let him touch and play with his food. Although it can get messy, it's a good learning experience! It encourages him to try new foods and gives him a chance to use his fingers and hands to explore the textures. When he puts food in his mouth, he'll continue to explore with his tongue.
Massage provides vital skin-to-skin contact in the early days and improves long-term attachment and emotional resilience. It's good for all babies, including premature and low-birth-weight babies.
By paying attention to your child's responses, you get to know the type of touch he likes and responds to in particular ways.