The Hunger for Touch: The Impact of Structured Maternal Gentle Touch on Cardiorespiratory Processes of Mother and Infant

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


The effects of a daily maternal gentle touch stimulation (GTS) compared to a non-intervention control (CTRL) group on mother-infant self-regulatory processes were investigated as well as their potential underlying mechanisms indicated by parasympathetic inhibition. The GTS intervention aimed to provide C-tactile (CT) optimal stroking touch. CT afferents are a particular class of cutaneous unmyelinated, low-threshold mechano-sensitive nerves hypothesized to be involved in inter-personal bonding and the physiological, neuroendocrine and behavioral beneficial effects of touch. The impact was evaluated in the short (after two days, i.e. T1) and long term (after four weeks, i.e. T2). Physiological regulation was presented by mother-infant cardiorespiratory processes, indicated by respiratory sinus arrythmia (RSA). Mother-infant dyads (N = 35) with infants aged 3-12 weeks were subjected to a baseline (BL), baseline-touch (BL-T), gentle stroking touch (n = 22)/control (n = 13) (GTS/CTRL), still face (SF) and reunion (RU) condition. Electrocardiogram (ECG) and respiration were measured. Mean RSA, RR-interval (RRI) and respiration rate (fR) were calculated for each condition. Cortisol was collected before and after the experiment. The mothers completed two questionnaires (EPDS, TEAQ) at T1 and T2. Cardiorespiratory and cortisol ANOVA analyses showed the experiment elicited stress during the SF in the infants at T1 and T2. At T2, ANOVA cardiorespiratory analyses showed that the BL-T, GTS/CTRL and RU phases elicited higher RSA, RRI and lower fR in GTS infants compared to CTRL infants. Correlation analyses indicated physiological changes during the SF were associated with increased cortisol. Mothers’ physiology opposed the infants’, namely increased RSA, RRI and decreased fR during the SF and decreased RSA, RRI and increased fR during RU, presumably due to metabolic changes. Questionnaire analyses indicated early touch experiences (TEAQ) were negatively correlated with maternal depression (EPDS). Results are discussed considering the potential role of CT afferents and in an epigenetic frame.
Date of Award10 Jan 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
SupervisorMartine Van Puyvelde (Promotor)

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