The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact With Your Baby Leads to Happier, Healthier Development

Reviewed Publisher: 
New York: Henry Holt. 276 pp. ISBN: 0-8050-5354-9.
Reviewed Title: 
The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact With Your Baby Leads to Happier, Healthier Development (1997)
Reviewed Author: 

Quite simply, developmental psychologist Sharon Heller's The Vital Touch is the best, most comprehensive guide to good, early parenting on the market today. This book synthesizes all of the current research on attachment parenting issues, such as baby-wearing, breastfeeding and the family bed. These issues and the corresponding research are vitally important to our babies, who aren't allowed a second chance at childhood. That Heller understands these issues also are important to society as a whole is shown by her comment that societies have either "cooperated and shared resources" or "competed and killed one another." Mainstream parenting philosophy is finally starting to understand the extreme importance of the first three years of life, but we're still seeing too much medicated birth, bottle-feeding, isolated sleeping, "crying it out," and container parenting (a reliance on strollers, swings, pacifiers, and other inanimate objects to entertain and hold our babies).

Heller incorporates not only her own compilation of research but that of other well-known authors, such as Jean liedloff, Tine Thevenin, James McKenna, William Sears, Michel Odent, and Ashley Montagu. Her definition of traditional birthing and parenting practices is, not what has been done in the last 50 years in the United States but what has been done for millennia. There is so much good information here! The first third of the book heralds "the power of touch" as "the first connection" and "the rock of love." Touch, or lack of it, profoundly affects birthing practices, newborn stability, the quality of mother-infant attachment, and how much developmentally important sensory stimulation our babies receive.

Part two discusses the cultural habits that put us out of touch with our infants: all the containers in which we nest our babies; our prudish sense of our body, which leads to a withholding of affection, unsuccessful nursing, and a distortion of normal sexual development; our lack of support for the nursing mother; and our taboos against cosleeping. Part three discusses how modern parents can compromise, between nature's call for closeness to their babies and our culture's "plea for distance."

The Vital Touch discusses the "battle between our genes and our culture." As humans, we've been parenting a certain way for millennia, and we are not suited to the radical change that's taken place in the last hundred years or so. Humans need to be touched. Our babies need to be touched and loved, cuddled and nursed, held and hugged. The Western consciousness has absorbed a Puritan spirit, which teaches that by loving our children we will spoil them, so instead we hold them at arms length, or don't hold them at all. Heller recounts the unfortunate influence, beginning in the 1920s, of books by behaviorist John Watson, Luther Emmett Holt, Sr., and the U.S. Children's Bureau, all of which railed against picking up, holding, rocking, cuddling or comforting infants. Multitudes of parents became convinced that to engage in any of these practices with their children would produce "a spoiled, fussy baby, and a household tyrant" and a dependent, whiny adult unable to live up to "the American dream." Although Heller thinks the "empire of the anti-touchers" has begun to crumble, these teachings of the early 20th century "had profound repercussions on how our grandparents parented our parents and how they, in turn, parented us." And, how we parent.

Container parenting has become a part of our national consciousness. Heller calls these containers "touch thieves" and cautions that they instill "in infants a disconnectedness from the human experience." Plus, it's so silly! Just last week, I saw a mom struggling to carry two bags and a huge, heavy, unwieldy car seat with her child isolated inside. This mom's errand would have been infinitely easier had she taken a moment to transfer her baby to a sling. More important than this, though, is the "awareness of life" her baby loses by having little or no human contact during the day. Heller discusses at length the sensory deprivation babies suffer by spending their days in cribs, infant swings, etc., and what the long-term effects of this are, and she provides parents with scientific evidence and encouragement to follow the instincts for touch that come from within.

What I especially liked about Heller's book, though, is that she addresses the reality of attachment parenting: It is really difficult for mothers in our culture! Although we evolved in tribal groups, "continuously surrounded by kin and community," as moms living in nuclear families, we are isolated and often lonely. We have a difficult time finding supportive groups of like-minded parents, and many times we don't feel that our jobs as primary caregivers are appreciated or valued by our communities. Moms who work are also having a difficult time, feeling like they can't do everything. Heller devotes a whole chapter called "The Self-Reliant Supermom" to these issues and offers supportive ideas and practical suggestions, for modern women to give their children the emotional and developmental benefits of high-touch parenting.

Want to help heal our society while nurturing babies into happy, outgoing, well-behaved children? This book tells us how. I can't recommend it strongly enough for all parents, new and old alike, as well as for professionals who seek to pass along vital information. Holding and cuddling our babies and children increases society's chance of having healthy citizens capable of creating peace in home, community, nation and world.

Publication Date: 
12/2004