The Importance of Physical Contact between Mothers and Infants: A Bidirectional Influence
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Myriam Al Bcherraoui
· 7 min read

Research has found that physical contact between mothers and infants enhances infant development and promotes nurturing behaviors and positive mood states in mothers

In early infancy, physical touch is fundamental for healthy infant development, and may be the most important sense. In fact, infants begin to use their sense of touch long before being born. During prenatal development, the fetus can sense its own body and the surrounding environment. So, when infants are born, they seek as much physical contact with others as possible. When the mother holds her newborn infant to her chest, the infant will nestle closely into her neck and attach to her chest. These behaviors are not random, instead, they are comforting and soothing for the infant. Close physical touch permits infants to familiarize themselves with their mothers and recognize her touch, voice, sight, and smell.

The importance of physical touch is not only important to humans, but it also applies to animals. For example, a study conducted in 1958 by Harlow confirmed that infant monkeys preferred physical contact over food. In this study, Harlow took infant monkeys from their biological mothers and replaced them with two inanimate surrogate mothers. One of them was made up of wire and wood and the other was made up of foam rubber and a soft cloth. The infant monkeys were then placed in two groups. In the first group, the wire and wood mother had a milk bottle attached to it and the cloth-covered mother did not. In the second group, the cloth-covered mother had a milk bottle attached to it and the wire mother did not. Harlow discovered that in both groups, infant monkeys spent notably more time with the cloth-covered mother compared to the wire mother regardless of which one had food. For instance, when only the wire mother had food attached to it, infant monkeys only approached it to feed but then instantly ran back to the cloth-covered mother. Even more astonishing, Harlow discovered that when infant monkeys encountered a strange or frightening situation, they immediately clung to the cloth-covered surrogate mother for comfort and safety. If the cloth-covered mother was present, infants would explore their environment, if scared they would return back to the surrogate mother, but then explore again. When the surrogate mother was removed, infant monkeys were struck with fear, curl in a ball, and suck their thumbs for comfort.

This experiment goes on to emphasize the importance of maternal touch in infant development. Both animal and human infants seek the soft touch of their mothers for comfort and reassurance in strange and distressful situations. When infants are deprived of physical contact, the consequences can be severe and long-lasting. For instance, studies conducted in orphanages showed that being brought up in a disadvantaged environment with little to no physical touch has extremely harmful consequences on infant development. Therefore, physical touch between infants and mothers has important implications in early attachment and future healthy development of infants.

Physical touch is not only important for infants, but also for mothers. From a biological perspective, when mothers are in close skin-to-skin contact with their infant, especially by laying the infant on their chest, their brain releases a surge of oxytocin which is linked with nurturing behaviors and elevated mood states. From a behavioral perspective, when mothers are in close skin-to-skin contact with their infant, mothers become more capable of recognizing their infant’s signals. For example, mothers begin to recognize better when their infant is hungry or sleepy. Having this increased awareness improves mother’s responsiveness, sensitivity, and connection to their infant.

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Despite how important close physical contact between infants and their mothers is, families in western societies are in contact around 18% of the day compared to families in non-western societies which are in contact around 79-99% of the day. This significant difference may be attributed to the use of modern means of infant care, such as formula feeding, institutional medical practices, and baby equipment which all limit infants’ contact with their mother. While these products are useful, they eliminate opportunities for physical contact between infants and others, which can negatively affect infant development, maternal behaviors, and the developing infant/mother connection.

For instance, if we compare infants who are carried with skin-to-skin contact (i.e., dressed only in a diaper and held closely to the mother’s bare chest) with infants who are carried with babywear (i.e., carried in slings or cloth with no skin-to-skin contact), we discover that infants with skin-to-skin contact are at various physiological and behavioral advantages. Particularly through the release of oxytocin and stimulation of the sensory nerve fibers. In addition, skin-to-skin contact during the first month after birth improves infants’ ability to respond emotionally to their mothers. In contrast, using babywear to carry infants enhances the mother’s interactions and sensitivity to her infant’s needs.

Lastly, infants who sleep in close physical contact with their mothers (regularly co-sleep) gain better sleep regulation which permits them to adjust to changed sleep situations.

In summary, close physical touch between infants and mothers is vital for the development of attachment in infants, nurturing behaviors in mothers, a mutual connection, and for overall healthy infant development. Close physical contact with others allows infants to survive, mature, and acquire social cognitive abilities.


Bigelow, A. E., & Williams, L. R. (2020). To have and to hold: Effects of physical contact on infants and their caregivers. Infant Behavior & Development, 61, 101494.

Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American psychologist, 13(12), 673.