Moms’ touch gives kids social push

Youngsters born prematurely and with low birth weights display good social and emotional health by age 2 years if their mothers consistently caressed them and touched them in other nurturing ways, a new study finds. In contrast, toddlers who had the same birth complications but received much less nurturing contact along with occasional pinching, slapping, and other types of harsh touch show signs of anxiety and social withdrawal, say Sandra J. Weiss of the University of California, San Francisco and her coworkers.

The researchers videotaped and then analyzed the types of touching used by 114 mothers feeding their 3-month-old babies. All infants had been born prematurely. Forms of touching showed little relationship to mothers’ displays of emotional warmth or to other facets of childcare. When each child in the study reached age 2, Weiss’ group tested the toddler’s social and emotional status and interviewed the mothers.

A caregiver’s touching style uniquely shapes an infant’s psychological development, the researchers conclude in the September Infant and Child Development.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.