The Importance of Touch for Babies and Children

I recently read about a study at Sahlgrenska Academy where Emma Jonsson conducted a study on babies to determine whether or not they reacted to touch. The babies were held by their mothers and experienced brush strokes at two different speeds, one of them at the normal pace we typically use to caress our children and one at a faster pace. The babies also wore an elastic bandage on their heads, which helped to measure blood flow in their brain.

The study found that a slow caress, like we would normally give our children, stimulates more blood flow in our babies’ brains. Think about that for one second: these babies, with an average age of eight weeks, experienced a gentle caress-like touch and it triggered higher blood flow in their brains. Babies are ready to experience caressing, physical affection from almost birth and you can argue that they need it, too, because of how strongly their brains reacted to it.

It got me thinking about my kids (boy/girl twins) after they were born almost 10 weeks premature. They were 3 pounds each and had to spend four weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). My wife and I would visit every day and give them kangaroo care.

If you’re not familiar, kangaroo care is when you take your baby and place her bare chest on your bare chest so that she could physically feel you and the warmth and closeness of you.

I remember doing that regularly, but not having any idea if it really helped. Our babies, obviously, didn’t speak and couldn’t communicate and I was so new to being Daddy that I didn’t know what I was doing. Was this making a difference? Did they even notice us being this close together?

But this research proves the value of us as parents being physically close with our babies and children. It shows our touch makes a difference. It shows our babies need our love and affection from the moment of their birth.

My kids, who were so tiny I could easily hold them both in my arms, are now both taller than I am. Is that because we did kangaroo care when they were babies? Is that because we showed them love and affection consistently?

I don’t know, but this study makes me think kangaroo care and our affection had more of an impact than I could’ve imagined.

Use A Pacifier to Soothe Her to Sleep?

I had dinner with one of my closest friends the other day and we walked out of the restaurant into the blazing, devastating heat and slowly made our way into a Whole Foods at Union Square just to survive. While we walked around the Whole Foods, going down the escalator, wandering through the aisles, then going back up the escalator to start all over again (it was cooler downstairs than up), our conversation soon turned to parenting.

She had just spent a couple of weeks taking care of her new niece and explained one of the challenges her sister was having. Her niece, let’s call her Sara, had been having trouble sleeping through the night, waking up 3, 4, even 5 times a night. Sara’s grandmother was recommending giving her a pacifier so she could learn to soothe herself at night. But Sara’s mother didn’t want to use a pacifier for a number of reasons. And, understandably, she liked being the one that could make her little girl feel better, feel safe enough to go back to sleep. I know I love that feeling as well.

Of course, the problem was Sara and Sara’s mother were exhausted, neither of them getting enough sleep. My friend and I talked about whether my wife and I used pacifiers (which we didn’t) and what my thoughts were. Fortunately, I had one of those moments of insight and understanding. Sara’s grandmother was right that Sara needed to figure out how to soothe herself at night, but it didn’t have to be a pacifier.

When we tried to help our kids sleep through the night, we tried a number of things and finally found some that worked for each of them (because of course, it was different for each). For my girl, she used an Elmo stuffed animal, while my son used a blue woobie (a very small blanket) with satin edges and a little teddy bear in the middle. I explained that we didn’t hit pay dirt right away with both of them, though it was much easier with Lucas than with Dorit. Dorit didn’t like the woobie she had and finally we realized she felt connected to Elmo and that helped.

The truth is it is so much of trial and error. We tried something for a few nights and if it didn’t help we tried something else. If it did and they slept through the night, we didn’t change anything at all until it stopped working…we didn’t change our clothes, we didn’t shower, we changed nothing. We were so relieved when they slept through the night we would do anything to replicate it.

My friend yesterday let me know that they found a woobie for Sara and that both mommy and little girl are sleeping much better. Who knows how long it will last (I hope a LONG time!), but it was a nice reminder that parenting is so much about problem-solving and about trying to hear what our children are telling us in their own special way.

It also was a pleasant reminder that there isn’t a right way to do this parenting thing, only a way that works best for our families.

Sharing What I Love

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

I have found that one of the best ways to bond with my 2.5 year-old children is to share the things I love with them. The strongest example of this is my love of animals. I believe a love for animals is immensely valuable because it not only helps us learn and treat animals with respect, but it gives us an appreciation that we humans are not the only living beings on this earth. There are other animals, different from us, who also live here and share our world. It was something I started learning as a child and I hoped my children would feel the same way. I never considered that by sharing my love with them, we would build a stronger connection together.

One of my favorite things to do, when I had a free day all by myself, was to go to a zoo or aquarium and spend the day watching animals. I have learned and seen quite a bit about animals over the years, but every single time I visit a zoo, I always see or hear something special, something I have never experienced before, which always serves to increase my sense of awe at a world of animals we rarely get to experience firsthand.

Ironically, when my wife and I met she wasn’t really that interested in animals. But when I am talking about or looking at wild animals, I have a childlike enthusiasm that my wife found incredibly infectious. Now, in almost every room of our home, you’ll find figurines of animals such as birds or dolphins, and especially elephants – her favorite. When my wife got pregnant, I began to wonder what it would be like to share this passion of mine with my children.

Without even trying, almost from the moment of conception, our children became intertwined with our love of animals. Within a couple of weeks of finding out my wife was pregnant, we went to the Bronx Zoo with her family. Since we had found out, both my wife and I had been struggling with how to refer to the little being growing inside of her (yes, at the time we thought there was only one baby inside of her). We didn’t want to say “he” or “she” and certainly didn’t want to say “it.” Yet, since we didn’t know the gender, we hadn’t come up with a name for our baby.

With this problem percolating in our minds, we walked around the zoo. Every time we came across a four-legged deer-looking animal, my wife would call it an Okapi. Neither of us really knew what an Okapi looked like, but she liked the sound of the word and kept repeating it. At the time, the Bronx Zoo had recently opened up their Congo exhibit and we hadn’t seen it yet. For the first time the line wasn’t long and we got to go in. As we walked through, thoroughly enjoying the utterly different environment they created there, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with a real-life Okapi. We were absolutely amazed. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It is a large animal, about six feet tall at its body and another two-to-three feet taller to its head. Its hind legs are striped black-and-white like a zebra, but it has the head and tongue like a giraffe (it is actually a member of the giraffe family). It is a strange looking animal, but incredibly unique and beautiful. It just stood there, out in the open, staring at us as we stared at it, neither one of us wanting to be the first to move. Finally, it broke contact and hid itself in the bushes and trees as people walked behind us, with no idea what they had just missed. That night my wife started referring to our baby as “Okapi” and the name stuck.

Four weeks later when we saw the sonogram and learned it wasn’t a shadow, but another baby inside my wife, we started calling them Okapis and two-and-half years later we still do.

Because animals were a huge part of our lives we gave them a prominent role in the lives of our children. Their crib set was Noah’s Ark (they came two by two as our babies did). Their sippy cups had ducks and lions on them. We bought them clothes that had elephants and dinosaurs on them. We decorated their room with a giraffe mask and an elephant sketching.

The books we read our children at night almost always had some animals in them. Whether it was hippos going berserk, giving a mouse a cookie, the cow jumping over the moon, a mother bunny or explaining that our love is stronger than seven mighty lions, the message was clear; animals are a part of our daily life and we love them. By the time they were ready to talk, they had already heard us mention the names of so many animals multiple times. It was no surprise that the first word spoken by our little girl, Dorit, was “duck,” most likely because of the sippy cup with ducks she always drank from.

As their imagination began to develop, we bought them some animal figures and stuffed animals they could play with, interact with. A couple friend of ours even found two Okapi figurines and bought them for our children. This opened up a whole new way for them to experience animals, and for us to experience them together. This gave them control over what the animals did and how they interacted instead of just passively listening or watching. I realize now it helped both of my children develop a personal relationship with specific animals. Dorit became fascinated with the Panda stuffed animal and figurine. She would talk to it, cuddle with it, and for a couple of months even wanted it in her crib when she went to sleep at night. They began to feel a sense of comfort from their animals. When they each went through a difficult stretch going to sleep at night, we piled their favorite stuffed animals into their cribs and it seemed as if they felt less alone and more able to fall asleep.

Incredibly, after everything we had learned and experienced together about animals, I failed to understand one vital element that became crystal clear to me when we went to the Bronx Zoo last summer. It had been a rainy morning, but had turned into a pretty nice afternoon, and the zoo was relatively empty. We were having such a wonderful time. They had seen so many animals up close that they had only seen in books or on videos and they were in awe.

When we got to the giraffes, Dorit’s favorite animal, we were delighted to see four of them running around, something I had never even seen before. I was holding Dorit and pointing out the giraffes to her, commenting on how long their necks and legs were and how funny they looked while they were running. But she didn’t say anything. Normally, she is quite talkative, asking a lot of questions, but she remained still in my arms, watching. At first I thought something was wrong, that maybe she was scared of them or something. But there was an element to her expression that gave me pause. She actually looked overwhelmed, like her brain was working so hard to comprehend what she was seeing.

And then it hit me.

Every single animal she had ever seen in her life had been exactly what she thought it was, part of a book or a video or a toy. While I completely understood that those animals were representations of the real live animals, she, of course, never knew that. She never knew that a picture of a giraffe is not a giraffe. She thought that the picture was the giraffe. But sitting in my arms, seeing them run around in real life, her brain began the process of understanding that this was real and those pictures were not. I was watching her brain expand and process that thought and I was not only awed by the giraffes running, but by my little girl as well. I gave her a hug and when we separated she was smiling at me.

I found myself smiling, too, because once again while at the zoo, I got to experience something incredibly amazing.

Evolution of Me

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

It took my parents 20 years to figure out their relationship had harmed everyone involved. Because of their absorption in work and activities that kept them away from each other, I was taking care of myself and my sister from a pretty young age; I had keys to our house by 4th grade because our parents were rarely home for dinner – let alone when we got home from school. A home cooked meal consisted of three yogurts or a bunch of peanut butter crackers and toasting Oreo cookies so they melted in my mouth.

This seemed normal to me until I started visiting friends’ homes during college. I came to understand that my sense of worry and anxiety came from the lack of stability in my family. Trying new things – even things like new foods or clothes – was scary. Being a child in the sense of just having fun was not something with which I was very familiar. As I got older, that only got worse. Fun? I had enough trouble saying it, let alone letting myself have any. My idea of a good time was an exhausting and intense emotional conversation with someone about our childhoods and relationships. I always thought real fun was maybe something they covered in school but I had been out sick that day.

Fortunately I met an incredible woman (who thankfully became my wife) at college. She not only was an expert at enjoying life, but she provided stability and had unyielding confidence in me. This made it possible for me to take risks by trying new things (now, I love Indian food) but also to take the risk to be someone better than I was. It is the difference between surviving life and actually living it. When she and I went on a road trip together, we would take the more scenic route and explore. I never would’ve even considered that as a possibility before I met her. During the 11 years she and I were together, I had come a long way. Then we had twins.

In the beginning, I found it difficult to relate to each of them. I’m a pretty good conversationalist but there was not much I could say that was going to get them to talk back to me in those first few months. I was happy to hold them, but that kind of gets old after awhile. I didn’t know what else to do.

My wife, however, always seemed to know exactly what to do to interact with our children. I would sit and watch her, amazed at how she would tickle them, make funny noises and laugh with them. If I hadn’t known any better I would’ve suspected she had Jon Stewart and his writing team creating material for her. She seemed to have an endless supply while I had trouble coming up with one good line. She would keep doing things until they responded and then she would do it over and over and over again because they never tired of it. Before I knew it she had a full repertoire. She never worried about whether she looked foolish or not and, of course, she never did. I could see their eyes aglow, beginning to associate absolute and utter joy with Mommy, making the two synonymous. How come the baby I was with always seemed less happy than the baby with her? I couldn’t help but wonder what they were associating with Daddy.

I knew I needed to try and do what my wife was doing, but it was so hard to let myself go like that. How did she do it? When I asked, she said she didn’t know, that she had never thought about it. Then I realized she had never thought about it because there was nothing to think about. One evening she was holding our son, Lucas, who was only about five months old and always sat up straight and didn’t seem to like to bend his knees. She started calling him stiff boy and he smiled. Then she dropped her tone of voice and called him stiff boy again. He started to giggle. Then she did it again while tickling his neck with her nose and he laughed for the first time. An absolutely glorious sound. She didn’t plan that; it just happened. She was following her instincts and our boy’s reactions. She wanted to connect with our children and was willing to try whatever it took to make that happen, to make them happy. In the end, their laughter made us all incredibly joyful.

For several months I had trouble getting past the sense of not wanting to look foolish, of being too serious. I was afraid they would think their Daddy was an idiot if I tried to make them laugh and failed. Better to be a little distant than to fail in front of them. But this distance prevented me from building the kind of relationship with my children that I wanted. I had to try something, but while my wife’s instincts led her to making Lucas laugh for the first time, mine told me to do nothing.

Instead of doing nothing, though, I tried the things she did that worked. Yes, I was a thief. I stole her material. It didn’t work quite as well as when she did it, but I started to get a reaction from them. Like good chocolate, I wanted more and that wanting challenged me to practice being spontaneous, to get used to the feeling of going with the flow, to break through the layers of having to be proper, serious and composed and let myself be free, let myself be me.

The first time they really laughed at something I did was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as a father. I was playing with a ball and bouncing it on my hand and then on the floor. The first time I did it, they giggled. Not being dumb, I did it again. They giggled louder. After the third time they started to laugh. Then I started exaggerating my actions and they laughed even harder. I kept doing it and the three of us were absolutely hysterical. We were laughing so loudly my wife actually had to check in on us to make sure we were okay.

One of the best aspects of coming home is slipping out of my shell and being myself with my children. Last night at dinner with our faces only a foot apart staring intensely at each other, I smiled and winked at my little girl. Since she couldn’t wink back, she raised both of her eyebrows up and down as if saying, “C’mon, top this Daddy.” I responded by only raising one eyebrow. Knowing she couldn’t do that, but not giving up, she used her finger to push her eyebrow up and down and then we both laughed and my heart felt like it filled my whole body.

Positive reinforcement made an incredible difference for me. The more they responded to what I did, the more I was willing to risk being myself, risk looking foolish, because what’s important is my relationship with my children – not looking cool and distant. I was very lucky to have a role model right in my very home who is by far the best person I know at enjoying life. Thankfully, it looks like our children already are taking after her.