What Babies Know About Their Bodies and Themselves

How infants’ brains respond to touch may indicate their understanding of their bodies, researchers say.

Comments: 44

  1. One of my first really clear memories is that of my great-grandmother sitting next to my newborn brother laying on his back on a blanket. My great-grandmother was mother to six, grandmother to 41 and great-grandmother to god knows how many children. She gently caressed my brother's hand and told him, "This is your hand, these are your fingers. Feel me touch them?"

    I can remember, my young self, wondering why in the world she was talking to this blob of a baby. Great Grandma intuited the research!

  2. To Kelly,
    You are so right. Luckily for us, many have wise and experienced grandmothers, and mothers. Babies can tell more about life than we give them credit for, when they are invited to the world by those who love them.

  3. When my son was born, both of his grandmothers were in the delivery room (and my husband, and the nurses).

    Once delivered, every adult in the room except me and the OB followed the baby over to the clean-up area. My mom, a parenting veteran on a mission, wormed her way to his side and tapped his palm. He instantly grasped it.

    I think most baby behavior is instinct, nothing more, until about 18 months. The toddler stage is so much fun precisely because that seems to be when they develop an awareness of their own body.

  4. Baby behavior is much, much more than instinct before 18 months. Read the child development literature! Read the developmental neuroscience literature!

  5. Babies are born with the innate ability to grasp, and very tightly.

    The strength of that grip was used for thousands of years as an indicator of the baby's strength & health.

  6. Obvious to every parent.

    But the baby picture is cute.

  7. I wonder if there is a way to apply this research to NICU babies. Babies born very early or sick spend their days covered with different sensors and can spend long periods with very limited touch. These measures are important for their survival but many babies that start this way have sensory issues later in life. My preschooler, a former 28 week preemie, oscillates between being having too little sensory perception and too much.

  8. Pediatric occupational therapists treat so many kids who are NICU graduates. Many, but not all, demonstrate difficulties with aversion and modulation of sensory input.

    Some were long-term NICU patients and some were not. My professional experience is that the longer they stay, the more complicated their current issues are, and the more likely they are to continue to have delays and deficits in multiple areas.

    Research hasn't shown us if there are specific key brain areas that are the source of sensory processing issues, but we do know that there are many parts of the brain that support good processing and integration. We also know that a lack of healthy, organized input or excessive noxious input puts babies at risk for later problems. Occupational therapy can make a huge difference in the quality of a child's life, even after a tough NICU experience.

  9. @japo this is why in many NICU units "kangarooing" is practiced, even with tiny tiny babies covered in medical eqiupment: baby is put on someone's (parents or other care taker) bare skin and wrapped up. Skin-to-skin care leads to better heart rate, better breathing and generally better outcomes for sick preemies.
    Many years it was thought that too much touching would lead to "overstimulation" of preemies, now there is quite a bit of research on how important the human touch is for tiny preemies.

  10. Touch seems a logical first. However when our daughter was born and howling as she was held by the doctors, my husband called out to her as he would to her in my swollen belly. And everyone was amazed when she stopped crying and tried to turn her whole face towards him.

    Perhaps there is more to neural mapping of all senses if the baby is systematically conditioned to stimuli.

  11. It's such a joy to see your baby discover its own hand and fingers to suck on, they seem delighted as well!

  12. If only all news was this good.

  13. from my medical studies even the very first single celled protozoa responds immediately to touch - negative input causes it to recoil, attractive input causes it to seek more of it

    so it should not be news that babies respond to protect against negative inputs and encourage positive inputs.

  14. How about touch on the tongue? Can taste and smell be similarly tested? When does the baby differentiate his/her voice from those of the parents, sibs?

  15. This early body map appears to be sensory only. I'm afraid the map of mentation, so far, is imaginary.

  16. The best is when your little baby is crying because he is yanking on his own ear and you pull his hand off his ear and he looks so relived...until he does it again.

  17. lot of anthropomorphic interpretation here of what the baby is conscious of. Registration of stimulation in the brain does not mean that the baby is "conscious" of himself or others interacting with him. Need much more sophisticated experimentation to get at what infants "know" about their environment. Naive assumptions here that electrical activity is cognitively meaningful. Would be more significant if the infants remembered who touched them last, or if they could differentiate between mummy touch and daddy touch. Right now these researchers are over-generalizing the meaning of gross electrical brain activity. Better questions will lead to better answers.

  18. Have six children, no anesthetic at birth for most, and spend a lot of time with them as infants, and you would laugh at dogma about when self awareness and such can develop. Watch an 8 month touch embossed letters and say “Letters, letters” then run them along a word’s length and say “Word, word.” and repeat that for the next and then the next word on the changing table. Watch a six month old mimicking the different animals on the TV. And crawl the ways the different animals do.

    At 8 months a miserable baby with four teeth erupting, and a canker sore on her beloved thumb, sees her mother leaving and for ten minutes, momma gone, yells her first words “I want my momma! I want to go bye, bye!” Over and over.

    We had never spoken those sentences but had said “Go bye bye” “Momma” and Want a . . .” Note: Momma was the only word she then chose to speak until 17 months, which she then turned into a conversationalist.

    No, babies might sometimes recognize their picture since they do not see themselves from outside. But they certainly can know who they are, that they have a different name than their siblings. Oldest son Hans spoke always with a deep, deep voice, deeper by an octave or more, than his dad until two and a half, then after thirty minutes of switching back and forth from foghorn deep to the pitch of the other children, chose the higher pitch until puberty arrived.

  19. Another reason (as if we needed any!) why breastfeeding is so important. Or, put differently, why artificial baby nutrition is clearly inferior.

  20. I also feel that breastfeeding is very important for numerous reasons but sometimes there are reasons beyond a mother's control that breastfeeding is not healthy foe baby or mother. At that point bottle feeding should be done with the baby held close as in breastfeeding so that they are still getting the same sense of touch and receiving adequate nutrition.

  21. Another reason why male genital mutilation, aka circumcision, must be banned, just as FGM is banned, in violation of the 14th amendment of the US constitution.

  22. Touch is so important that past (some less than ethical) research demonstrated that a sufficient amount of physical touch can increase the probability of survival in infants. In one study (by psychologist Harry Harlow) they took baby rhesus monkeys and gave them a choice between a hard wire fake mommy monkey with food, and a soft (i.e., more cuddly) fake mommy monkey but without food (later switching which fake mommy had food). The baby monkeys were overwhelmingly more likely to choose the cling to their cloth mommies, suggesting the mother-infant bond originates through touch. Touch is also a significant aspect of adult well-being. It is through human interaction (which ideally includes lots of positive touch) that we develop self-consciousness.

  23. I have to agree, primarily because of the shortcomings of the medical model. The electrical signal is only an indistinct proxy and is in no way capable of measuring actual mental or social development. Research suggests that on average a sense of self develops in infants around 18 months of age. One classic test of whether one's child has developed a sense of self is to put a mark on the child's forehead (non-permanent is best, lol) and then set the child in front of a mirror. If the child interacts with the image the child sees in the mirror as if it is not him or herself, the child has yet to develop a sense of self. However, if the child looks into the mirror and touches the mark on his or her forehead, that child likely has developed at least a rudimentary sense of self. This test relies on having a child routinely look at one's self in a mirror so as to know that the mark placed on his or her forehead is not a regular feature of his or her self.

  24. I remember how my babies touched and sometimes held my hand when I breastfed them. What could be more sweet and beautiful? Hadn’t thought about that for years. Thanks for this article.

  25. “touch is the first sensory system to develop in the baby’s brain prenatally,”

    I'm not a researcher but I question this. I think the sense of hearing develops first, at least in terms of human 'consciousness' and communication. It's well known that newborns react to the voice of their mother (which they have been hearing for months in utero) differently, more positively, than the voice of others. A crying newborn will be much more likely to quiet when spoken to by it's mother and it's eyes will focus on mom's face. This is especially true during breastfeeding.

    Completely aside from the topic, since we are clearly 'electro-chemical' creatures, I can't help but wonder at what the exponential addition of so many electromagnetic wave energies into our environment (radio, TV, cell phones, wi-fi,, etc.) are contributing to brain development and (dys?)function. We are constantly bombarded with more and more of these electromagnetic wave forces. I can't believe they are completely innocuous.

  26. REJ, you are wise to question, but seem naive to "believe" something in the face of good neuroscientific evidence. If I told my patient's (parents) that something in their child's neuropsychological treatment plan was something I "believed" or "felt" could help their child, I would be doing them a great disservice. It is no different than so-called "Christian counseling" where therapists substitute evidence base techniques with prayer (not meditation) in the "belief" that they are helping mentally ill people. We have churches to pray in and clinics for treatment. Prayer and believing are best practiced in houses of worship while psychotherapy is best delivered in clinics and offices offering actual treatment. And Mesmer would have been a big fan of your theory of dangerous electromagnetic forces. He was a fabulous showman and magician. I urge you to read the history of that talented charlatan of the 19th centruy.

  27. Based on James Albus’ neural network research on the organization of the cerebellum, we were reasonably certain since the ‘70s that what this research shows is, in fact, exactly the case.

    There are enough clues in the generally recognized developmental schedule for infants and young children that we never thought to question the model that Albus’ work implies.

    Well done. Nice to have seen our assumptions backed up. The primitive state of equipment available 40 or 50 years ago would not have served, were this question our central focus; we would have been lost trying to demonstrate the carefully timed staged development of cerebellar structures presented by Albus’ models.

    All in all, very cool. Thanks for presenting this work; it made our day.

    —Tom and Kay

  28. Now apply this to the brutal sexual violence that is genital mutilation, aka circumcision. Given how important touch is, how much must it damage baby boys to be subjected to this crime against humanity.

  29. Fascinating little creatures they are and how grossly incapable we are at interpretation until they start using language and other behaviors that we recognize as our egocentric own.

    Right before birth I saw the film 2001 which had astounding kettle drumming music. My son was dancing in utero with the strongest kicks I had felt the entire pregnancy. He is now a drummer.

    How little we know when language is not spoken or other senses like touch given credence in development and need, such as breast feeding.

  30. I can remember far back before I had words. These memories are strong because they required a decision to be made or a problem to be solved. My very first memory was of deciding to suck my fingers (not my thumb, but my 2 middle fingers). I was in my crib. It was dark. I was staring up and I was alone. My pinky finger was soft. There were no words for pinky, or finger or soft. But even though there were no works, there was self language - I knew what I was doing as I was exploring. I rubbed the pinky finger on my face - it was soft and comforting, and I wanted to keep doing it. The problem was that holding my hand above my head while I rubbed my pinky on my cheek was too much work for a tired little me. But, if I put my 2 middle fingers in my mouth, was able to root and rest my hand on my face and soothe myself away with my pinky.

    In terms of consciousness and self awareness - there was no word for I, but there was knowledge of me and my body and the parts of my body and my mind working with my body to solve a problem - so yes, self and consciousness were present. But I'll add that my awareness was kind of in and out. Sort of dream like. I suppose if a baby is dealing with a lot of information processing and organization at once, concentrating and maintaining the presence of self wouldn't be very easy.

    It's a strong memory. It aligns well with what this is saying. And because I can remember being so young so clearly, these types of studies interest me.

  31. All of this just happens magically, of course, as soon as the fetus leaves the womb.

  32. imagine how painful mutilation of his genitals, aka circumcision conditions a baby boy.

  33. Please connect this science to the separation of families at the southern border of the United States and tell us how these children are likely to suffer from the experience. Also, connect this science to the policy of not allowing children in custody to be touched. What kind of damage are we doing to these young brains?

  34. Your comment is exactly the comment I was going to make. This article, and the research it is based on, should immediately be force-fed to Donald Trump and his cohort, and presented to all the judges dealing with the separation of children at the border. This is just another one more entry in the long story list of damaging effects that will permanently derail the lives of thousands of children as a result of the barbaric separation of children from their parents and siblings at the border. Indeed, the article points out that touch for babies and young children, and most importantly surely the touch of their loving caregivers, is at the most fundamental source of what makes us human. And what makes us social creatures. What, ultimately, makes possible a cooperative, peaceful and constructive society.

  35. Please connect this to the massive scale assault on boys that is genital mutilation, which takes place hundreds of times daily to newborns, often with no anesthetic, with them torn from their mother's arms, strapped to a cold hard table, while the most sensitive tissue on their body is crushed, then sliced off, in one of the most vile, barbaric practices humans have ever inflicted upon each other.

    Imagine what this does to their developing brains.

  36. Apparently american boy mutilation was inspired by an american doctor’s visit to Europe who decided our men were oversexed! So he instituted and campaigned for cutting.

  37. I noticed when my younger son was being cleaned right after his birth that he was jerking his arm in what appeared to be an intentional manner. Indeed, he was trying to get his thumb in his mouth, and he succeeded. It was not a one time event; he had learned in utero to put his thumb in his mouth.

  38. As I go into dementia (prematurely at a mere 74 years old) I am recapitulating my childhood. Soon my caregivers will be providing me with a nipple as I loose my mind. It would only be appropriate though if is a rubber nipple.

  39. Oh, please. Pre-verbal. As if verbal were the only means of communication. So many of us read the body language (for want of a better term) of others that tells so much more than what they 'verbalize'.

  40. Our almost 9 pound wonder when laid in his crib, at home reached and grabbed the mobile suspended over his crib. He was 2 days old and his prior reaching experience was in grabbing my finger while nursing at my breast. I know I am not the only mother with a new born who have witnessed the eye hand coordination exemplified in breast fed babies, in particular.

    BTW, a product called Detain, if it is still available, which is sold to adult males to prevent premature ejaculation provides some solace for circumcision recipients.

  41. Imagine saying something so callous to victims of fgm, which is not more sexually damaging than mgm.

    Circumcision is a euphemism for genital mutilation, and the product you describe, doesn't bring back the destroyed erogenous tissue.

  42. Such research needs to ask whether a local, general, or no anesthesia was used in the delivery. My last four had no anesthesia.

    At 19 hours, when mom left for the toilet, baby turned towards me, the moment she flushed the toilet, the baby would quickly look at the door and as mom cane thru, smile.

    Rolling over and off the pediatrician’s table at 8 weeks! (Pediatrician caught him just above the floor.)

    Crawling when very hungry at two months. And so forth. Explanation was that general anesthetics take a long time, like months, to clear the baby’s body.

    I would expect that the tip of S America tribe where newly born babies on mom’s shoulders, grasping tightly, and keeping mouth closed as she dives 20’ or more deep for mussels and such, would have quite different maps than children wrapped and bundled.

    Interesting and provocative article.

    Since sounds heard by the baby in the womb are greatly magnified, much as if you put your ears underneath the bathtub water and heard sounds much louder from far away, I would expect newborns whose mothers are singers, actors, and talkers, to have different maps. Not yet born baby kick, daddy touch the belly where baby kicked, baby and dad start a game, should have interesting differences at birth.

  43. “Prior to language, a lot of social emotional interaction comes through touch,” Dr. Meltzoff said, and understanding this representation of the body may help explain the groundwork for social emotional development." This has profound implications for treatment of infants who are averse to touch and recoil from stimulation as in the case of many infants with (as yet undiagnosed) Autism Spectrum Disorders.