Touch communicates as nothing else can, and it is irreplaceable in our lives. Think of the times in your life when you felt most comforted and most loved, those moments involved touch.
When it comes to how much and what types of physical contact are important for a child, research offers a clear answer: young children need positive human touch, and lots of it, in all its forms-carrying, swinging, rolling, holding, a backrub, a hug, a pat, a high-five, rough-and-tumble play, even massage.
Nurturing touch from their parents and caregivers is essential for children to feel loved and secure, interactions with their peers help develop social and emotional competence.
Parents and teachers should understand that withholding touch can be just as physically and emotionally harmful to a child as sexual abuse or physical abuse such as hitting, grabbing, spanking, and shaking.
When children of any age are denied touch or when they experience it only in the context of aggression or punishment, they are deprived of the nurturing environment they need to thrive and grow.
They also will lack experiences to prepare them to discern touch that is loving and appropriate from touch that is dangerous and inappropriate and thus they are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
In the realm of emotional and social development, touch is critical in fostering bonding between children and their parents and other caregivers, as well as contributing to social and emotional competence.
Touch in physical and cognitive development
The physical benefits of touch begin as soon as a child is born.
Newborns who experience skin-to-skin contact with their mothers soon after birth cry less, sleep longer, and have longer periods of quiet alertness, which is when most learning often occurs.
They also have higher blood sugar levels, a positive outcome in newborns. Skin-to-skin contact is also important for successful breastfeeding.
Conversely, without adequate touch, infants may fail to thrive or may even die. Research has documented instances of child deaths from lack of touch.
Touch as therapy
Kangaroo care: Mothers instinctively embrace their newborns, and science confirms the therapeutic benefits of that natural impulse.
One therapeutic intervention originated in the late 1970s in the overcrowded clinics of Bogota, Colombia. Because incubators were in short supply, mothers of premature babies were given their infants to hold 24 hours a day.
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They tucked the infants under their clothing, like a baby kangaroo would be in its mother’s pouch. Doctors studying the practice noticed that the babies thrived; mortality rates fell from the typical 70 per cent to 30 per cent.
They, and later others elsewhere, began prescribing the practice, referred to as “kangaroo care.” This touch technique involves having the naked (but diapered) newborn lie in an upright position on the mother’s (or father’s) bare chest, with the baby’s head turned so that her ear is directly over her parent’s heart.
Massage: Touch therapy in the form of massage also provides benefits in pre-term infancy and beyond. Massaged infants experience fewer colds and fewer episodes of diarrhea than non-massaged infants. Pre-term infants also gained more weight when massaged regularly.
In one study, pre-term infants treated with massage grew faster and gained more weight, and they were more alert and responsive than non-massaged infants. Massage has therapeutic benefits with later health conditions, too.
Children who have suffered burns report less pain during treatment after they receive massage therapy and children with cerebral palsy become less spastic and gain in muscle flexibility and in fine motor and gross motor control.
Many studies have confirmed the therapeutic benefits of touch for newborns. Touch is also needed to support and sustain healthy brain development.
Touch, particularly skin-to-skin contact, acts to stimulate and suppress the release of powerful hormones and other chemicals that affect a variety of functions in the body including emotion, behavior, growth and thinking.
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