Twenty-three years ago this month, my first child was born. Some hours after she was born, she was in my arms feeding. She turned gray and stopped breathing. The doctor grabbed her from me and ran down to the neonatal intensive care unit.
The next time we saw our daughter, she was in a plastic box with tubes and wires coming out of her, and annoying beeps all around. It was terrifying. She looked alone, and isolated and untouchable.
She ended up spending two weeks in the NICU and along with all the various tests and monitoring they did, the health-care professionals encouraged my husband and me to touch her as much as we possibly could. We would take her out of the incubator (wires and all) and hold her close, skin to skin, gently swaying on a rocking chair. My husband would unbutton the top of his shirt and plop her on his chest and then button up again, holding her tight. They called it "kangaroo care," and in the '90s it was a revolutionary new approach to caring for infants who were in the NICU.
"Human touch is very critical for our bodies, mostly for our physical health," Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami medical school, told me in a recent telephone interview.
Physical touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, and they in turn reach the vagus nerve, which slows down the nervous system and essentially calms you by reducing your stress levels.
There have been hundreds of studies demonstrating the health benefits of touching and massaging infants, especially premature ones. In Field's research she says babies who were touched gained 47% more weight and were released from hospital five days earlier.
I will confess, I am a hugger. My grown children are home during the lockdown, and I hug them as much as they will let me. I miss hugging as a routine part of my life. I hug friends, I hug my dad, I hug my siblings. My family is a family of huggers. I miss it.
Well, it turns out that touching is not just important for infants, it's important for all of us.
That's why every story of a covid-19 patient who dies alone in a hospital, without the touch of a loved one, breaks my heart. That touch provides comfort, not just for the patient, but for the loved one too.
Touching releases endorphins, which boost mood, and oxytocin, which is sometimes called "the cuddle hormone," something that allows for bonding.
Field says when grandparents hug their grandchild, it is emotionally meaningful but also physiologically significant. So as we see pictures of grandparents waving to their grandkids in a drive-by, or on a computer screen, it is important to recognize that that lack of physical touch can have a negative effect on both sides.
I see that with my own father. His older grandchildren are in faraway places, but the youngest two live five minutes away from him, and he is despondent that he cannot hug them, have them sit in his lap or engage in any of the physical demonstrations of affection we have all taken for granted.
Touch is not just important in our emotional relationships. It can matter in other, non-familial situations. Studies on professional teams in the NFL and NBA found the team that touched more played better. Field says that's because this, too, conveys a sense of bonding: "In baseball when people were being hugged after their home runs, they played a better game. Basketball [revealed the] same kind of phenomenon. . . . High-fives, pats on the butt, all of those kinds of gestures that communicate, you know, I like being on the team with you."
If you are missing being at your workplace, the loss of a simple high-five every now and then might have something to do with that.
For people who are on their own, Field suggests some things you can do yourself, hug yourself, rub your legs, swing them when you are sitting. Even hand-washing stimulates pressure receptors on the skin.
As for that baby who was grabbed from my arms and rushed to NICU? She stayed there for two weeks and then came home strapped to an apnea monitor for three months so we could keep tabs on her breathing. That baby grew up into a healthy child and now a healthy young woman.
And on her birthday you can be sure that she will be getting a few extra hugs from her mom and dad. It will make us all feel better. Science says so.