Nurturing Touch in the First Three Years Promotes Lifelong Mental Wellness – Greer Kirshenbaum, PhD
" Instinctively, parents want to be in contact with their children—it’s why leaving your baby alone to cry can feel so painful. It is painful, for both parents and children. If you have been denying yourself and your baby that close attention, be assured that being in touch with your baby as much as possible is a healthy biological drive and, importantly, provides essential brain-building experiences."
I am a neuroscientist, doula, and mother on a mission to improve mental health for the next generation. Poor mental health is a serious and worsening worldwide crisis (1). Much of the
focus for improving mental health has been to find treatments for individuals who are already
suffering. My career studying neuroscience and practicing as a doula has informed me that there is an additional and powerful way to improve mental health outcomes. The knowledge
I’ve gained has inspired me to communicate this transformative knowledge to parents, perinatal professionals, and the world. We can get to the root of the problem, and neuroscience has shown us the way.
To make a difference in alleviating mental health struggles, we need a revolutionary cultural
shift in awareness and intention to the time where mental health is formed. The latest
neuroscience research indicates that fundamental brain structures for lifelong mental health
are extensively built during infancy, from conception to three years old. Put simply, that means infancy is a special season of life to build a baby’s brain for lifelong mental health. The primary brain structures that underlie mental health are built by experiences in infancy beginning at conception and continuing to three years old. These brain areas include the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and the oxytocin system. They can each be shaped towards resilience and lifelong mental health. We know now that the best way to do this is by providing babies with highly nurturing experiences (2).
There are many ways we can intentionally provide highly nurturing experiences to babies.
Nurturing touch, in high amounts, is one of the most powerful ways we can support a baby’s
developing brain in building structures that support mental health. Instinctively, parents want to be in contact with their children—it’s why leaving your baby alone to cry can feel so painful. It is painful, for both parents and children. If you have been denying yourself and your baby that close attention, be assured that being in touch with your baby as much as possible is a healthy biological drive and, importantly, provides essential brain-building experiences.
Here are a few simple ways parents and caregivers can practice nurtured care in children up to
1) Practice skin-to-skin from 0-3 months.
Take your baby’s clothes off except for their diaper, then take off your shirt. Lay baby’s
body on your chest, with their nose facing up and their airway open, so you are skin to
skin. Then cover baby’s body with a blanket and relax and breathe. I recommend this practice in the first three months for all parents and caregivers for at least 60-90 minutes a day up to several hours a day. If someone comes over to meet your baby, get them a robe and set them up for skin to skin.
2) Offer lots of holding and loving touch.
You can hold your baby as much as you want and as much as your baby needs. Hug
them, kiss them, and cuddle them. Let them sleep on you (while you are awake,) wear
them in a carrier, touch them as you speak softly to them and look in their eyes. Lay
them on your belly as they do tummy time.
3) Provide contact or closeness during feeding.
When you are feeding your baby milk, by any means, hold your baby in your arms and
give them all of your attention and presence. You can make eye contact, hold your
baby’s hand and speak to them lovingly.
4) Give unconditional access to being held or touched.
Babies need a lot of holding and touch and they need you to respond to this need unconditionally. When babies need closeness they might reach up for you, cry or ask to be picked up. They flourish when we respond and provide what they need. Infancy is a special season of life that offers a unique opportunity to boost mental health for babies and for future generations. We are deeply in need of a Nurture Revolution, a profound increase of nurture in early life. Nurture for babies, nurture for parents, more connection, more intuition, and more joy. Babies need deep connected positive relationships in the first three years of their life, and beyond.
Doherty, T. S., Forster, A. & Roth, T. L. Global and gene-specific DNA methylation alterations in the adolescent amygdala and hippocampus in an animal model of caregiver maltreatment. Behav Brain Res 298, 55– 61 (2016).
Ciernia, A. V., et al. Experience-dependent neuroplasticity of the developing hypothalamus: Integrative epigenomic approaches. Epigenetics 13, 318– 330 (2018);
Singh-Taylor, A., et al. NRSF-dependent epigenetic mechanisms contribute to programming of stress-sensitive neurons by neonatal experience, promoting resilience. Mol Psychiatr 23, 648– 657 (2017)
Korosi, A., et al. Early-life experience reduces excitation to stress-responsive hypothalamic neurons and reprograms the expression of corticotropin-releasing hormone. J Neurosci 30, 703– 713 (2010).
Lester, B. M. et al. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior in the human infant. Pediatrics 142, e20171890 (2018)
Zhang, T. Y., Labont., B., Wen, X. L., Turecki, G. & Meaney, M. J. Epigenetic mechanisms for the early environmental regulation of hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor gene expression in rodents and humans. Neuropsychopharmacol 38, 111– 123 (2012)
Weaver, I. C. G. et al. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nat Neurosci 7, 847– 854 (2004).
Blaze, J., Scheuing, L. & Roth, T. L. Differential methylation of genes in the medial prefrontal cortex of developing and adult rats following exposure to maltreatment or nurturing care during infancy. Dev Neurosci 35, 306– 316 (2013).
Perkeybile, A. M., et al. Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor. Psychoneuroendocrinology 99, 128– 136 (2019)
Maud, C., Ryan, J., McIntosh, J. E. & Olsson, C. A. The role of oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) DNA methylation (DNAm) in human social and emotional functioning: A systematic narrative review. BMC Psychiatry 18, 154 (2018).
Krol, K. M., Moulder, R. G., Lillard, T. S., Grossmann, T. & Connelly, J. J. Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement. Sci Adv 5, eaay0680 (2019)
Pena, C. J., Neugut, Y. D. & Champagne, F. A. Developmental timing of the effects of maternal care on gene expression and epigenetic regulation of hormone receptor levels in female rats. Endocrinology 154, 4340– 4351 (2013).
Greer Kirshenbaum, PhD is author of The Nurture Revolution, Neuroscientist and Doula