Social touch between human beings has a profound impact on all areas of our lives, starting from birth when touch between parents and babies forms the basis of neurological regulation, social and brain development, our earliest social interactions and social learning. Social touch between parents and babies has the capacity to transform the possibilities for parent-baby relationships and, in turn, to expand and transform our relationships with all people. If we are serious about supporting healthy, human development, we need to understand the importance of the way that touch mediates the earliest experiences parents and babies have with each other. Here are our top ‘must-read books’ for parents and workers alike interested in infant massage and how touch creates who we are.
If it were not for Montagu, we would perhaps still only think about human skin in relation to its mechanical functions (for example, to warn us of pain, and to provide a barrier against infection). However, with the publication of Touching: The human significance of skin in 1971, Montagu turned this view of human skin on its head, inspiring generations to come to explore the role that skin plays in forming the social bonds between people, as well as the very nature of our humanity. With topics ranging from the role of the skin in communication, the impacts of touch and skin sensations in the womb, following birth, during breastfeeding and throughout the lifespan, Montagu also gives insights into what was understood about the impact of touch deprivation and distortion on social behaviour. This book is the grandfather of a more cohesive and richer understanding of how touch (or lack of touch) mediates all aspects of our humanity.
If Monatgu opened our eyes to the “why” parent-infant touch matters, McClure provided the “how”, in this book also published in the early 1970’s. Although there are several infant massage books on the market, McClure’s text is unique. As well as providing sequences of practical massage and touch activities that parents can use with their babies, McClure was one of the first authors to also support parents to approach babies as people – recognising that each baby has their own preferences, emotions and even thoughts. Massage, and touch generally, she argued, is a conversation between parent and baby – not a task that parents “do to” a baby. As such her “handbook” is an invitation to consider the language of babies, as much as it is a manual for communicating with them through touch. This book inspired an international movement of mothers and grandmothers (and, later on, fathers) to support other parents in the use of nurturing touch.
Donald Winnicott is credited with making the statement: “There is no such thing as a baby, there is only a baby and someone”. This idea that babies cannot exist or develop in isolation of their relationships, also provides the foundation of Sansone’s book, which explores the complicated and highly individual nature of touch between mothers and babies. Sansone is both a psychologist and a baby massage educator. This book is an in-depth exploration of the ways in which each mother’s emotional history, posture, body image and awareness come together to shape her use of touch and other interactions with her baby. In turn, using real life case studies, Sansone describes how the mother’s somatic self, shapes the baby’s early social, emotional and neurological experiences. Sansone also offers examples of how a cue-based approach to teaching infant massage can be used as a way of bringing parents and babies together when communication has broken down. Her writing is not only insightful and detailed – but deals with a fascinating and otherwise neglected topic. It is truly refreshing to read a book which introduces genuinely new ideas and insights and Sansone stands alone in her capacity to open an exciting new dimension to our work, that has not been written about before. This book is a “must have” in the library of anyone concerned with the social and emotional world of parents and babies and will leave you hungry for more.
For some people, talking about touch between parents and babies has negative, even sexual, connotations. This is understandable, given that an estimated 25% of the population have experienced some form of sexual or other bodily abuse as children. This book is not about sexual or child abuse per se, but rather how our own experiences, a range of cultural forces, and our views about childhood sexual abuse, have come together to shape a too-simplified and frightened view of adult-child touch. If we are truly to support healthy, respectful touch, interaction and communication between parents and babies, these are the very issues we need to understand and address. This book deals with an important, and often glossed-over topic that will give valuable insights into why talking about touch is a tricky and difficult subject.
The vital touch: How intimate contact with your baby leads to happier, healthier development (Helen Heller)
In a similar theme to Halley’s Boundaries of Touch, in this book Heller is also concerned with the ways in which cultural forces have shifted and shaped fear and other barriers to healthy, social touch between parents and babies. However, where Halley focuses on how these barriers have come about (particularly in relation to the politics and sexualisation of touch), this book focuses more on the technological and consumer pressures, as well as the ‘idealisation’ of motherhood, which have created a fear and distrust of closeness between allowing ourselves to become “too close” to our children, leading many parents to second-guessing their baby’s need for physical closeness. Again, an understanding of these issues is essential for anyone supporting early parent-baby interactions. This book, like the others on the list, is less concerned with providing instructions on “how to” parent, but refreshingly just presents some well researched ideas – allowing parents (and workers) to draw their own conclusions.
Romania’s abandoned children: Deprivation, brain development, and the struggle for recovery (Charles Nelson)
Some of what we understand about touch and its importance in infancy and early childhood, comes from observations of what happens when babies and children are deprived of touch. And, in many respects, touch deprivation has become synonymous with the Romanian orphanages of the 1980’s. Very few of us who were around then, will ever forget the images of children who had experienced neglect and abuse on a mass scale – and the horror of realisation that lack of loving touch played a central role in the unimaginable trauma experienced by children in these institutions.
But there is a second chapter in this story: one which has received much less media attention, but is equally deserving of international attention. In this book, the authors describe their work for a project of the Romanian government to establish a national, ‘high quality’ foster care system in Bucharest to ensure that all children – who would have otherwise have been institutionalised – can grow up in families. Now 16 years into the project, the results are stunning. Children who had been institutionalised and had extreme forms of developmental delay, were placed in foster families. With high levels of support and training provided to carers children improved and in some cases even recovered from their initial experiences. And the earlier the children were removed from institutions, the better they fared. Although this book is not specifically about touch, it is about the profound impact of social interaction (or lack thereof) on human development. It is also a testament to the power of early intervention in supporting parent-infant relationships, and the promise that it is never too late to be loved.