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The Importance of "Skinship" in Childrearing: The human touch and its facilitation of the parent-child attachment

Mother-child interaction is critical from the very initial stages of childrearing. The formation of the human system of bonding between the mother and child, is dependent upon the mother and child interacting intimately with each other. However, this is not something that is learned, but rather, a natural process. It involves the sensory system and it is something that is inherent in the basic exchanges of the mother and child.

In thinking about the many exchanges that involve the mother and child in childrearing, I have categorized three major interactions which I shall state here. There are the "skinship interactions" which involve holding the child, carrying the child on the mother's back (another historically practiced Japanese way of carrying the baby) and sleeping alongside the baby (also, a practice that has been alive for many centuries, where the baby and parent(s) sleep alongside each other). The "play interactions" involve rocking the baby, playing peek-a-boo and swinging the baby high in the air. Lastly, there are the "caring-for-the needs interactions" involving nursing the baby (breastfeeding or formula), changing diapers and clothes, and finally, bathing the baby.

I would like to begin by thinking about the "skinship interactions" as a functional element of the mother-child interaction involving the sense of touch. It is important to remember that the word, "skinship" itself, is a derived word in Japanese, meaning the English, "touch" and emphasizes keeping physical proximity between mother and child, usually involving direct contact. "Skinship" can be coarsely defined as the exchange of information between mother and child through tactile sensations.

The phenomenon of the newborn baby crying until the mother or nurse cradles him/her can be a good example of how the newborn feels security and warmth upon his/her entrance into the real world. It just might be that the newborn is able to recall his/her comfortable existence in the mother's womb.

In any case, this is proof that the newborn's sense of touch is already working in the first moments of birth. It goes without saying, that at this moment, the mother also feels immense emotional joy as she is able to feel with her own skin, her baby's soft skin for the first time.

Observations of videos involving the mother and newborn reveal that when the newborn is laid beside the mother, the mothers take similar actions toward their babies. They first touch the baby's fingertips, hand and feet, slowly moving to the body. In a few minutes, they spread their hand and touch the baby's whole body, looking at the baby's face and, if the eyes are open, they stare at the baby's eyes. They then proceed to pick up the baby and hold the baby, allowing the baby to suck on the mother's nipple. When reading about such research results, it is apparent that skinship behavior, especially in females, is already programmed in one's system.

It is not uncommon in Japan, for the baby and the mother to co-sleep. When thinking about the tight housing conditions, this is quite understandable. However, co-sleeping may be something unique to Japanese families that may be of benefit to some Western countries where there is a high frequency of child abuse. In England, for example, where child abuse occurred frequently, it was speculated that the lack of skinship was one of the causes. Thus, an English pediatrician decided to launch a campaign promoting co-sleeping and set out to study co-sleeping habits.

He decided to videotape the mother and newborn while sleeping together in the hospital after birth. He found two very interesting results of this research.

Firstly, he found that the newborn in the co-sleeping pair, did not cry. Only one out of about thirteen babies who were co-sleeping with their mothers cried. After examination of this baby, it was discovered that this baby was wearing heavier clothing than the others and could not experience skinship with the mother. It seemed that when the clothing was taken off of the baby, and the mother's skin was able to touch the baby's again, the baby stopped crying immediately.

Secondly, the pediatrician found that the mother's body and newborn's body never lost contact with each other, despite the fact that they were both asleep. It seemed that the mother adjusted her movements to the baby's, moving left when the baby moved to the left and right, when the baby moved to the right. It was reported that it almost looked as though they were dancing with each other. This is a wonderful example showing the delicacy of the mother's "childrearing program".

There are a few instances where the baby dies while co-sleeping with the other. However, in most of these cases, the cause of death is something other than suffocation. In England, the incidences of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome occurring to babies of alcoholic mothers or others, is also becoming a matter of concern in Japan.
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