A baby's first experience with the surrounding environment occurs through touch, developing prenatally as early as 16 weeks. This sense is essential to children's growth of physical abilities, language and cognitive skills, and social-emotional competency. Touch not only impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood, but also has long-term effects, suggesting the power of positive, gentle touch from birth. Through this contact, newborns are able to learn about their world, bond with their caregiver, and communicate their needs and wants. After all, 80% of a baby's communication is expressed through body movement.1 When parents engage in appropriate touch, young children have improved chances to successfully develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually.
The Vitality of Touch
Similar to other sensory deprivation, the lack of touch during the early years slows growth in infants. Although research emphasizes the great benefits of touch for premature babies, the presence of such contact has also been shown to benefit all children. In fact, infants who experience more physical contact with caregivers demonstrate increased mental development in the first six months of life compared to young children who receive limited physical interaction.1 Furthermore, this improved cognitive development has been shown to last even after eight years, illustrating the importance of positive interactions. Infants who receive above-average levels of affection from their mothers are shown to be less likely to be hostile, anxious, or emotionally distressed as adults.2 The lack of such interaction, however, proves to be just as powerful. Infants who attend lower quality institutional daycare tend to receive minimal touch, which is associated to long-lasting cognitive delays in the future.3 Touch deprivation is additionally associated with increased aggression, pointing to the emotional and behavioral impact of contact during early childhood.3
In addition to the cognitive benefits, skin-to-skin contact lets children know that they're safe and protected, building trust between child and parent. Through the physical contact with adults, strong attachments can be created, thus providing a stable foundation for future relationships. Oxytocin, known as the "bonding" hormone, is released during times of close physical contact such as breastfeeding. Parent-child interactions may help foster the neurodevelopment of brain regions producing oxytocin, thus enhancing children's future socio-emotional development.2 Mothers' ability to identify their baby solely through touch immediately following delivery indicates their unique reliance on the tactile sense.4 Touch can benefit both mothers and infants alike, forming a bonding connection between parent and child. Infants of depressed mothers who massage their infants show improvement in growth and development while the mothers' depression levels decreases.3 Physical contact can also lower cortisol levels for both mothers and children, thereby leading to improved immune system functioning.3 By continually providing nurturing touch, parents can help facilitate enhanced social, emotional, and physical development at young age.
But What Kind of Physical Contact is Best?
The answer may seem simple, but with recent heightened controversy involving negative touch, many parents and childcare providers are reexamining appropriate physical contact. As limited physical contact with children can lead to impaired functioning, adults need to focus on eliciting positive touch with children rather than shying away from such interaction. To relax a crying or scared baby, the best technique involves a light message or gentle strokes on its back and legs.1 To stimulate a baby after waking up from a nap or during playtime, stroking a baby's face, feet, or stomach increases their alertness.1 Touch serves as a communication tool as it can both stimulate and calm an infant. Although the physical contact between baby and caregiver is key as it builds a strong foundation for future relationships, touch-based learning can involve alternative techniques. Coupling various materials and textures for play with an explanation or dialogue about these objects encourages simultaneous development of sensory, language, and vision development. Perhaps most importantly, researchers conclude that a daily routine in which a parent and infant spend considerable time together provides extraordinary developmental advantages. Parents can promote optimal growth and well being through constant love and affection to the children in their lives.
Goleman, Daniel. “The Experience of Touch: Research Points to a Critical Role.” New York Times. February 1988. Available here.
Gardner, Amanda. “Can a Mother’s Affection Prevent Anxiety in Adulthood?” CNN.com. July 2010. Available here.
Field, Tiffany. “Touch for Socioemotional and Physical Well-Being: A Review” Developmental Review. Volume: 30, Issue: 4, Publisher: Elsevier Inc., Pages: 367-383. 2011. Available here.
Stack, Dale M. “Chapter Thirteen: The Salience of Touch and Physical Contact During Infancy: Unraveling Some of the Mysteries of the Somesthetic Sense”. Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development. 1994. Available here.