The Incredible Benefits of Touch: How touching can bond children and parents

Touch is the earliest of the five senses to be developed in the human embryo and the most developed of all our senses at birth. Learn more about the incredible benefits of touch in children’s physical, emotional, and social development.

Words such as tenderness and love bring to mind the image of a parent cuddling a child, a couple with hands entwined, the sweet curling of a baby’s grasp, an infant’s hand splayed on a mother’s breast while tiny lips close around her nipple.

Touch is the earliest of the five senses to be developed in the human embryo and the most developed of all our senses at birth. No wonder there are so many incredible benefits of touch.

Touch has been the focus of numerous studies that attempt to pinpoint the relationship between a child’s healthy development from birth onwards, and the amount and quality of tactile stimulation that the child receives from the initial inception of life, as we know it. What is astounding are the startling results those studies have revealed, which all parents and primary caregivers of children need to be aware of, and which magnify the role of touch in children’s physical, emotional, and psycho-social development.

Dr. Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institutes (TRI) has found this to be true. She points out that massage can stimulate nerves in the brain, “which facilitate food absorption, resulting in faster weight gain. It also lowers levels of stress hormones, resulting in improved immune function,” Dr. Field Reports.

How Touch Works

The sense of touch is located in all the areas of the skin—that thin, less than one millimeter-thick barrier that separates our inner selves from the outside world. Unlike the senses of hearing, sight, smell, and taste, which are centralized in a specific area of the human head, touch receptors are spread out in all areas of the skin, located throughout our bodies. For this reason, touch vastly exceeds all other senses in sheer extent.

Touch receptors are connected to nerve fibers in the skin, which convey messages of pain, heat, cold, texture, and pressure to the brain, where those sensations are identified and their origins defined, often sending a lightning-fast reaction through the nervous system. The latter records those sensations (awareness, pleasant, innocuous, etc.), and acts as a defense mechanism, alerting the brain to potentially life-threatening situations.

Simply touching skin can create hormonal and emotional reactions, known as a “limbic touch responses,” involving the affected tactile nerves under the skin. Touch can also aid in the production of endorphins: brain chemicals that kill pain naturally while bringing feelings of happiness, and heightening sensory perception. Enkephalin, an endorphin, produces euphoria while reducing pain.

Additionally, there is increasing evidence linking touch to a heightened functioning of the immune system in animals, specifically connecting the amount of touch received by infant monkeys to the amount of antibody titer those monkeys produce.

Touch in Caring for Premature Babies

The increasing focus of pediatricians and child development experts on the role of touch in a baby’s physical and psychological development, and the importance of physical closeness to the mother, have sparked a return to knowledge that was inherent to earlier civilizations.

Kangaroo Care

This type of care, consisting of placing a baby upright in constant skin-to-skin contact with the parent’s chest, is a classic example. First implemented in Bogota, Columbia, because of poor socio-economic conditions that rendered other forms of care unfeasible, the results were remarkable. Krisanne Larimer, in her book, Kangarooing Our Little Miracles, says, “Kangaroo Care was found to be an inexpensive and very beneficial experience to babies in Bogota. The mortality rate fell from 70 percent to 30 percent.”

Infant Massage

Further research conducted at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute has found that premature babies who get massaged for 10to 15 minutes three times a day, gain 47 percent more weight, show better feeding and sleeping patterns, and are able to be discharged from the hospital six days sooner than preemies who don’t get massage.

The studies show that, “Massage affects the vagus nerve, which is connected to the gastric system and stimulates the release of food absorption hormones. Because touch also helps infants have better-organized sleep states, it may also affect growth, since growth hormone isn’t released into the bloodstream until a child has been asleep for at least 30 minutes. Preemies who are massaged also have decreased levels of stress hormones.”

Dr. Field reports that, “… massaged infants are more active, gain weight faster, and become more efficient. It’s amazing how much information is communicable in a touch …”

Co-bedding Twins

A few years ago, NICU nurse Gayle Kasparian became involved in caring for premature twins, Brielle and Kyrie Jackson, born 12 weeks early at a hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, with problems ranging from breathing issues to heart rate difficulties.

One day, when the babies were less than a month old, Brielle became frantic, and nothing worked to soothe her. Nurse Kasparian finally tried co-bedding the babies, and the results were dramatic, as described in Meredith O’Brien’s article, “The Rescuing Hug”. O’Brien quotes Patricia Maxwell Malmstrom and Janet Poland, co-authors of The Art of Parenting Twins, as saying, “There is considerable evidence that multiple infants who are co-bedded handle the stress of being hospitalized, and of all the procedures they must endure, better than those who are separated.”

A photo of Baby Kyrie with her arm around Brielle, dubbed “The Rescuing Hug,” ran in Life and Reader’s Digest, spiking an increased interest in co-bedding premature twins, yet another demonstration of the very powerful effect of a human’s being’s touch on another. In Brielle’s case, her sister’s touch could very well have saved her life.

Touch Deprivation

Conversely, touch deprivation of babies and older children has drastic effects, some of which, if left untreated, can span well into adolescence and adulthood.

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