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Critical Thinking Essay; Effects of Touch on Infants

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It is said that there is a sensitive period in infancy when an event or its absence has the greatest impact on development. I’m wondering if the sense of touch has in impact on an infant’s development. Therefore, the purpose of my paper is to research the studies and effects of touch, or lack thereof, on an infant’s physical and cognitive development.

I chose the The New York Times as my first source of information because this is a well established newspaper and I was interested to see if the reporter, Daniel Goleman, had violated the critical thinking guidelines. I found this New York Times article on the internet.

The article starts off stating the experience of being touched has direct and crucial effects on the growth of the body as well as the mind. “In some of the most dramatic new findings, premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes, three times a day, gained weight 47 percent faster than others who were left alone in their incubators - the usual practice in the past.” This statement defined the terms of the experiment very well. It states exactly how long these infants were massaged and how much faster they gained weight. “The massaged infants did not eat more than the others,” said a doctor who Goleman interviewed, Dr. Field. “Their weight gain seems due to the effect of contact on their metabolism.” These infants had the same amount to eat in calories and volume. In this case, the doctor had considered other interpretations for the weight gain and disproved that the food intake was a factor.

The terms of the kind of touch were also defined. Dr. Tiffany Field, a psychologist at the University of Miami Medical School who did the study, found that “a light massage of the babies backs, legs and necks and gentle movement of their arms and legs proved to have a tonic effect, immediately soothing them and eventually speeding their growth.” Different areas of an infant's body respond differently to touch. If a parent wants to soothe an infant, gentle strokes or light massage on its back and legs will relax it. On the other hand, stroking a baby's face, belly or feet tends to stimulate it.

There seems to be an important contextual change in western society’s hospital policies on premature infants, perhaps due to this type of research. The contextual perspective is the bigger picture of society. In this case, western society has changed their way of thinking. This affects individuals and is shown how through Brofenbrenner’s bioecological theory. Brofenbrenner made a diagram that shows us how an individual is affected by five interlocking contextual systems. These systems range from the person’s immediate environment to the broadest environment. As stated above, leaving the infants alone in the incubators used to be the usual practice in hospitals. “The standard policy in caring for premature infants has been a minimal-touch rule,” Dr. Field said. Word of her findings and others that support them has led to a change in this policy in some hospitals. This contextual change can be categorized into Brofenbrenner’s macrosystem.

The research however is not all about premature infants. The author writes, “Other research suggests that all babies benefit from touch, not just the premature infants Dr. Field studied. Research by Theodore Wacks, a psychologist at Purdue, showed that infants who experienced more skin-to-skin contact had an advantage in mental development in the first six months of life.” The author oversimplified when he wrote all babies benefit from touch. To know that for sure, he would have to study every baby!

It is obvious in this study that infant’s physical development may be affected by the stimulation of touch. The physical development of a baby is very important because it helps shape the development down the road. The height and weight of a baby are two examples of quantitative change in the physical development because these are specific things that can be counted or measured.

Dr. Kathryn Barnard, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington, is another doctor that suggests that there is another area of development that is affected by touch. According to this article, Dr. Barnard’s research has shown infants who were held more showed superior cognitive development as long as eight years later. They say babies being massaged become more alert and it also helps their cognitive processes by actually thickening the myelin sheath coating the nerves in the body, enabling these babies to have a faster mental processes. Cognitive development of course includes thinking, memory, language etc. Our textbook enforces the discussion about how enriched myelin will help a person’s thought processes in chapter 4; page 136 & 137. In this section, the book tells us about how the myelination of sensory and motor pathways may account for the appearance or disappearance of early reflexes. Unfortunately, this article does not examine the evidence of that statement so I don’t know how they realized that the myelin was actually thickening. For this reason, I can’t tell if there may be other interpretations as to why their cognitive development is more superior.

The next source I used to conduct my research was a website I found on the internet. I chose this site because it had information on the experiment conducted by Harry Harlow about the effect of touch on infant primates and how it relates to infant humans. This experiment if briefly explained in chaper 6 in our textbook on page 202, but I found this source more informational telling a lot about the background of the experiment.

The website starts out explaining the infant rhesus monkey experiment. He discovered that monkey infants reared in individual cages (for reasons of hygiene and disease prevention) developed poorly. He had to then ask the question, “Why are these monkeys developing differently then the monkeys not separated?” In order to proceed with the experiment, he had to then form a theory which is a set of logically related concepts that will attempt to organize and explain the data. Next he had to come up with possible explanations to try to predict the outcome of the research. This is known as coming up with a hypothesis. These two concepts are used in our textbook on page 29 to explain how many developmental scientists start their research or experiments.

The experiment, which is explained in our textbook in chapter 2 page 50, is a controlled, replicable procedure that is done where the variables can be manipulated in order to figure out the effect of one variable on another.



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