Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Your Baby's Senses: The Magic of Touch

In prior posts in this series, we've talked about your baby's senses - taste, hearing, sight, and smell. Last but certainly not least, we'll turn to a sense that has a powerful influence on your baby's behavior, touch.

The sense of touch (the somaesthetic system) is the earliest to develop of all the sensory systems in the body. While the skin's sensitivity to touch, pressure, temperature, or pain is only part of the somaesthetic system, it is the part that most people think of when they hear the word "touch." From the first moments after birth, our instincts tell us to gently touch our babies, often starting with just a light stroke along their tiny arms or legs with our fingertips. We seem instinctively to understand that our touch plays a powerful role in our babies' lives. And so it does. The research into babies' somaesthetic system is filled with some older animal studies, dark circumstances in orphanages, and more recent and ongoing work. The findings are clear, a caregivers' touch is important for babies' growth and development.

Touch As A Basic Need
In the 1950s, a psychologist named Harry Harlow conducted a very dramatic (and likely unethical by today's standards) experiment with baby rhesus monkeys. He took the baby monkeys away from their mothers and put them into cages with 2 fake "mother monkeys" made of wire mesh, one bare and the other covered with terry cloth. The wire mother monkeys each had a bottle pushed through the wire so that the baby monkeys could feed. At the time, scientists thought that babies bonded with their mothers solely because mothers were a source of food. It was a surprise when all of the monkeys spent as little time near the bare wire monkey as possible and all their time clinging to the terry cloth covered mother monkey. Harlow revolutionized child care at the time, concluding that babies needed more than something to eat, they also need soft familiar touch. Tragically, human babies who have been removed from conditions of neglect (like in overcrowded and understaffed orphanages) struggle to function, socialize, and communicate. While the lack of touch is not the only reason for these children's problems, it is considered by developmental scientists and as a powerful contibutor.

Touch Plays a Role in Communication
Touch has been shown to be a way that caregivers and babies communicate. When mothers use touch as part of games that they play with their babies (like tickling their tummys or gently touching their noses), they are rewarded with bigger smiles and more playtime.Most parents understand that a light tickling touch or a firm stroke on baby's back communicate different messages. Using touch, parents can help babies stay alert and encourage their babies to explore their world. A restraining touch can also be used as a warning and to  prevent babies from hurting themselves.

Touch Can Help Calm Babies
When babies cry, adults instinctively want to hold and touch them gently. We somehow know that while we can reassure our babies with our words, touch plays a special role in helping babies feel safe and loved. Repetitive touch (like rubbing a baby's back) is a common part of parents' efforts to calm babies and babies who are touched spend less time being fussy. An interesting side effect - when parents calmly stroke their babies' backs, they tend to become more calm themselves.

The study of babies' sense of touch is relatively new. While the research into the need for touch goes back more than 50 years, today's researchers are learning the role that touch plays in the development of babies, physically, emotionally, and socially. Stay tuned and we'll talk more about touch in future posts.

1. Harlow HF. The nature of love. American Psychologist, 1958: 13: 673-685.
2. Provence S and Lipton RC. Infants in institutions. New York; International Universities Press, 1962.
3. Stack DM. Touch and physical contact during infancy: discovery the richness of the forgotten sense. In: Infant Development (2nd Ed), Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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