The importance of touch: the forgotten sense

posted in: Baby, Suffolk Babies, Toddler | 0

Did you know how important touch is for emotional and physical wellbeing? You’ve probably been told about skin-to-skin for newborn babies, but are you aware of the vital role that our sense of touch plays in our lives?

Touch is probably one of the least talked about senses, yet it is the first to develop in the womb and is key in our physiology and emotions.

If you have travelled in different cultures, or come from a non-Western culture yourself, you’ll be aware that in the UK we probably have less physical contact with our fellow humans than in other places around the world. I remember on a holiday in Turkey being amazed at the sight of men being so much more tactile with other men than you ever see over here, except perhaps in the sports arena. In India, and other eastern cultures, massage is seen as an everyday part of life, not just as a nice “extra”, or something to be done to cure a particular issue like back pain.

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When I talk about touch, I’m not talking about the sort of touch we do purely with the hand and fingers, e.g. picking up a cup of tea. I’m referring to the rest of the body and the pressure on our skin from a hug or a stroke. The touch we do with the skin on our body responds differently in our system to the fast nerve fibres in the hand.

What skin-to-skin contact does for a new baby is absolutely amazing. It helps a baby regulate all the key systems in their body. It plays a fundamental role in nurture and bonding. It also boosts levels of oxytocin, the happy hormone, which you’ll know from antenatal classes is vital for a feeling of love.

This is what UNICEF says about skin to skin:

“There is a growing body of evidence that skin-to-skin contact after the birth helps babies and their mothers in many ways.

  • Calms and relaxes both mother and baby
  • Regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb
  • Stimulates digestion and an interest in feeding
  • Regulates temperature
  • Enables colonisation of the baby’s skin with the mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection
  • Stimulates the release of hormones to support breastfeeding and mothering.

Additional benefits for babies in the neonatal unit

  • Improves oxygen saturation
  • Reduces cortisol (stress) levels particularly following painful procedures
  • Encourages pre-feeding behaviour
  • Assists with growth
  • May reduce hospital stay
  • If the mother expresses following a period of skin-to-skin contact, her milk volume will improve and the milk expressed will contain the most up-to-date antibodies”

In the 1950s a scientist called Harry Harlow did some heartbreaking experiments on monkeys (search Harlow’s Monkeys on Youtube). In the experiment a baby monkey was separated from its real mother and offered two options for alternative “mothers” – food, e.g. a bottle, or a “mother” that was a scrap of cuddly material. Previously, scientists assumed that the baby would prefer the bottle, as getting food would be a primary need for the monkey. However, the baby monkeys always chose the cuddly “mother” over the bottle – so if you ever feel that all your baby is interested in is food, you couldn’t be more wrong. Babies need food, but they need loving touch just as much.

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Cuddly mummy on the left, food dispenser on the right

Food dispenser on the left, cuddly mummy on the right.

But why do we only focus on this for new babies? Is there a point at which physical contact stops being beneficial? In short, no.

You might remember the Romanian orphans from the 1990s, who were kept in orphanages and given very very little in the way of touch. They were fed and changed so what more could they need? Well it turned out that they needed a lot more. The brains of these children became seriously underdeveloped in key areas because of the lack of physical contact with other humans, as well as a lack of stimulation in other senses. They had severe behavioural and psychological problems. However, when they were placed in loving homes after this experience, they did improve to some extent. We know that if a developing brain is not given any of the nurturing touch it needs, (and we’re talking about a really extreme case here,) the consequences are disastrous.

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In our classes we talk about helping our babies understand where their body begins and ends, and this sense of self develops through touch. Deep, affectionate touch is necessary for the brain to develop optimally.

The first 5 years of life are crucial for brain development. It is during this period that the connections between the different parts of the brain are wiring up and connecting, and the personality is being formed. The experiences we have during this first five years affect us down to a genetic level. Calming touch affects our stress-response systems and helps us regulate our bodies under stress. From an adult perspective you may have seen the advice that hugs need to be 20 seconds long to calm you down. This is because the particular nerve fibres involved work fairly slowly, and it takes a while to register in your system. For babies it’s even more important than this – being held and touched develops their emotional regulation system. Babies who develop good emotional regulation systems are going to be much better able to cope with anxiety and stress as adults.

What this shows is that one of the most important and beneficial things we can do for our babies’ development is simple: hold them, touch them, massage them, cuddle them. You don’t need to do anything more complicated than that. Classes like Munchkins will help you understand the benefits of different types of positive touch, and there are lots of other benefits to the classes as well, but I think we cannot underestimate the importance of physical contact for our children.

Rough and tumble play is wonderful, between kids and especially between parent and child. We want kids to be using their whole bodies, improving their proprioception (sense of where their body is in space) and getting loads of physical contact. Cuddling or rocking your child to sleep is not a “bad habit” because you are helping your child calm down and nod off through contact with you. You can’t spoil a child by cuddling and holding them, in fact, you are helping them develop in the best possible way. I totally understand the feeling of being “touched out” when you’ve had a clingy child on you every second of the day, but equally we see so many mums concerned that they are holding their baby “too much” and they have been advised to cuddle them less. This advice is outdated and you can completely ignore it.

Kids in school get less PE and more desk time than they used to, and as adults we are more physically isolated too. The news is full of stories about inappropriate touching from predatory adults, which understandably leads people in perfectly normal and safe situations to feel that they can’t touch somebody else, especially a child. Sports that have some sort of physical contact are well worth encouraging – look at the enjoyment and focus on the face of this girl at Ipswich Judo Club, which takes kids from 5 years old at Northgate Sports Centre:

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We have been hardwired for millions of years to give and receive touch. It calms us down, improves our ability to regulate stress, creates bonds between people and is such a positive and easy thing to encourage.

Go and find someone and give them a hug, right now!

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