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What Is the First Sensory System to Develop in Babies?

By Ashley Soderlund Ph.D. ; Updated June 13, 2017

Babies can see, touch, smell, taste and hear when they are born. However, not all of the senses are equally developed at birth. Sensory systems need two kinds input to develop: genetic instructions and stimulation from the environment. All of the senses except for vision are stimulated in the womb. The sense of touch is the first sensory system to develop in the womb and is likely the most mature at birth.

Sense of Touch in Newborns

Newborns have a highly developed sense of touch. Most of the newborn’s innate reflexes are stimulated by touch. Swaddling works to calm newborns because of the sense of touch. Holding, rocking and rhythmic stroking are all ways to calm and connect with babies. It is likely that touch lays the foundation for the parent-child bond.

The first contact babies have after birth affects their growth and development. Skin-to-skin contact -- cradling a newborn naked on a parent’s chest during the first days of life -- promotes greater sleep organization and regulation of movement in newborns, concludes a study published in the April 2004 edition of "Pediatrics." Researchers have also found that skin-to-skin contact is so powerful that it can provide pain relief in newborns, according to a January 2000 study report in "Pediatrics."

Connecting With Your Baby Through Touch

A May 2012 report from the "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews" states that newborns who had early skin-to-skin contact were warmer, cried less, interacted with their mothers more and possibly had greater mother-infant attachment than babies who did not have this contact. In mothers, skin-to-skin contact promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps reduce stress and promotes bonding.

Connecting through touch with older babies and toddlers also promotes bonding. Hugs can comfort a sad or scared child, and back rubs and massages can help an overly tired child calm down. Giving a toddler a massage 15 minutes before bedtime has been shown to reduce sleep problems, according to a study published in August 2001 in "Early Child Development and Care." The sense of touch in a newborn is a powerful tool for connection, calming and nurturing development.

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