Updated: Mar 26
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 brain 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 caregivers, and communicate their needs and wants. After all, 80% of a baby’s communication is expressed through body movement. When parents engage in appropriate touch, young children have higher chances of successfully developing socially, emotionally, and intellectually.
The Importance of Touch
Similar to other sensory deprivation, the lack of touch by parents or caregivers during the early years impacts brain growth in infants. Although research emphasises 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.
Furthermore, this improved cognitive development has been shown to last even after eight years, illustrating the importance of positive interactions with parents. Babies 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. The lack of such interaction, however, proves to be just as powerful. Babies who receive minimal touch may experience long-lasting cognitive delays in the future.
Touch deprivation is additionally associated with increased aggression, pointing to the emotional and behavioural impact of contact during early childhood. Parents can ensure that the other adults taking care of the baby know the importance of touch.
Touch and the Brain
Long before babies acquire spoken language, touch is a crucial channel of communication between caregivers and babies. Now we have the tools to see how the baby’s body is represented in the baby’s brain. This allows us to catch the first glimpse of a primitive sense of self that provides a building block for social learning.
Researchers were particularly interested in the brain’s somatosensory cortex, a region generally described as a strip of tissue in the brain that runs between the ears, over the top of the head. It is in this region, in separate places and at different levels of strength, that the brain processes touch to different parts of the body.
A touch to the hand, for example, is a stronger sensation – and is processed in a different location along the somatosensory cortex – than a touch to the foot.
The data showed that, when the hand was touched, the hand area of the somatosensory cortex was activated in all 14 babies tested; when the foot was touched, activation occurred in the foot area of the brains of all of the infants but one.
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 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. A birthing parent’s ability to identify their baby solely through touch immediately following delivery indicates the baby’s unique reliance on the tactile sense. Touch can benefit parents and infants alike, forming a bonding connection. Infants who are given baby massages by depressed parents show improvement in growth and development while the parents’ depression levels decrease.
Physical contact can also lower cortisol levels for both parents and children, thereby leading to improved immune system functioning. By continually providing nurturing touch, parents can help facilitate enhanced social, emotional, and physical development at a young age.
What kind of Touch is Best for the Brain
The answer may seem simple, but with possible concern involving negative touch, some parents and childcare providers may be re-examining appropriate physical contact. As limited physical contact with children can lead to impaired brain development, parents and caregivers 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 massage or gentle strokes on the hands and legs. To stimulate a baby after waking up from a nap or during playtime, stroking a baby’s face, feet, or stomach increases their alertness. 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 babies’ 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 baby spend considerable time together provides extraordinary brain development advantages. Parents and caregivers can promote optimal growth and well being through constant love and affection to the children in their lives.
The Somatofulness Approach
Research is increasingly establishing the importance of the connection between the body and mind. By listening and responding to the messages our bodies are sending us, we can improve our mental health, decrease the symptoms of conditions like anxiety and depression, and lead full, wholesome lives.
This starts right at the beginning of life as parents interact with their babies through positive touch. In doing so, we foster the mind-body connection from an early age and teach our kids how to be in tune with their bodies.
Through a series of workshops and classes, we can help you strengthen that connection in yourself and raise your children in a way that allows them to build a lifelong connection with their bodies. In this way, your children can be emotionally grounded, happy, and confident from an early age.