Significance of Touch in the Lives of Young Children

Table of Content

Touch is an essential part of a young child’s development (Carlson, F. , 2005, pgs. 79-85). From the moment of birth, when uterine contractions caress the baby, touch is a catalyst for healthy cognitive, physical, and emotional development. When an infant is born, touch is needed to support and sustain healthy brain development (Shore 1997). Touch plays a critical role in the brain’s ability to weather stress without adverse effects. Touch lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the human brain. (Holden 1996, Field et al, 1997, Shore 1997, Blackwell 2000).

Positive touch reduces levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (Holden 1996, Field et al, 1997, Shore 1997, Blackwell 2000). Good touch will lead to increased mental and physical functioning in children. Without touch, children do not thrive. The emotional attachment that is formed as a result of warm and responsive care provides a child with a secure base from which to explore the world. Touch matters. Humans need nurturing touch for optimum emotional, physical, and cognitive development and health especially in infancy. Daily touch plays a significant role in early brain development.

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Some experts believe that a baby’s face so soft, round and so kissable has evolved precisely to invite needed touch from loved ones (Levy & Orlans 1998). In addition to a loss in the expression of their own emotions and affection, children who are deprived of touch growing up also show great tendencies toward other negative effects of life. In social and psychological studies, researchers have found that with touch deprivation, children often grow into juveniles and adults who show tendencies toward physical violence, sleep disorders, suffer from suppressed immune systems and even show some tendencies toward impaired growth development.

The basis on which these findings were concluded seem to indicate that when a child is deprived of physical contact by a parent, especially a mother, the child does not learn to develop and nurture a compassionate and caring side of themselves and thus will not care about the world they are involved in nor care about their own bodies. As a parent with a young child, especially an infant, it is important to express loving and caring emotions through physical interaction; touch. Because of this, many new parents are becoming more involved in the physical interaction with their children, often taking classes in the techniques of infant massage.

By learning and applying these techniques from infancy through grade school, your child will develop a more healthy sense of being and will learn to feel and express love throughout adulthood. Developmental delay is common in children deprived of normal sensory stimulation – for example, in premature neonates and some institutionalized children. Touch has emerged as an important modality for the facilitation of growth and development; positive effects of supplemental mechanic-sensory stimulation have been demonstrated in a wide range of organisms, from worm larvae to rat pups to human infants.

By understanding the underlying mechanisms, as well as the timing and degree of stimulation required to fully reverse the effects of early childhood deprivation, strategies can be developed to best help those in need. Research on the benefits of touch for premature infants has already led to procedural changes at many hospitals, with the implementation of ‘kangaroo care’ as a standard care option for both premature and full-term infants. In kangaroo care, the infant only wears a diaper and is held upright against the bare chest of the carrier. Feldman et al p. studied the long-term effects of this technique and found that premature infants who had received at least one hour of kangaroo care daily for at least two weeks, beginning between thirty one and thirty four weeks post conception, scored higher on both the mental and motor domains of the Bayley assessment tests at six months. The benefits of touch are not limited to emotional and psychological health, but carry over to physiological health. For instance, Patton and Gardner scientifically documented “detailed records” of young kids that were denied touch from their caregivers (Montagu, 1986:46).

The results were surprising. Records showed a direct relationship between children’s bone growth and amount of loving touch received. One of the subjects, a three year old child deprived of maternal affection, had half the growth in his bone size than the average three year old (Montagu, 1986: 244). Moreover, Doctor Colt from Miami’s Research Touch Institute has discovered that a gesture as simple as a hand resting on the shoulder or arm around the waist has the power to decrease the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

In addition, he found that some people in deep comas had their heart rates strengthened when they had their hands held by a close friend or family member. He believes that touch arouses the brain, creating endorphins that naturally suppress pain. Doctor Colt’s belief explains why after a child cuts himself that a mother’s hug can literally heal the wound (Fosshage, 2000:6). Although the benefits of loving touch are clear, they have been many influential “experts” who have stressed the benefits touch avoidance between child-adult and adult-adult interaction.

One of these influential expert is Sigmund Freud. To explain why Freud prohibited touch, Mintz pointed out three reasons that have led to prohibition of touch within the psychoanalytic field. First, psychoanalysis grew and developed in the Victorian era, a time known for its excessive sexual modesty. Mintz states that Freud and his students were seen as sexual deviants… a threat to society (Fosshage, 2000:3). Furthermore, given that Freud focused so strongly on “sexuality and aggression”, any form of touch could have been interpreted as being sexually or violently suggestive.

Consequently, that would have threatened the very existence of the psychoanalytic field. Second, the strong connections of touch with religious traditions and magic went against Freud’s objective of creating a methodical and rational field of science. Third, Freud repeatedly made attempts in mastering hypnosis. His hypnosis technique involved laying his hands and placing pressure on the client’s forehead, directing him or her to recollect past memories. Due to his failure in mastering hypnosis, he became frustrated, abandoned the technique and distanced himself away from it (Fosshage, 2000:3).

If loving touch is a crucial need, what are its benefits? Infants learn through touch. Touching physical objects, people, and themselves increase infant’s knowledge of themselves and their environment (Davis, 1999: 42). What is more revealing was the research done by The Touch Research Institute and J. & E. Carton. In 1996, medical investigators from The Touch Institute examined children’s playing fields, homes, and McDonald restaurants’ playgrounds in Paris and Miami.

Researchers explored the differences and similarities between the high tactile French kids with the low tactile Americans. The concluding results showed that French Greeting time, music and movement activities, noncompetitive games, and rest time are some of the instances when we can incorporate touch into our daily lives with young children. Adults should always help a child vocalize when he or she is uncomfortable with a touch and should never punish a child for these expressions.

Teachers and caregivers must learn to consider each child’s individual preferences as well as past experiences. As important as the touch itself is the reason behind the touch. Through conversations with the child, we teach the child about body boundaries and ownership, thereby helping the child to protect herself from abusive touch. “Body ownership” and “touch respect” are salient in meeting the individual needs and preferences of each child in our care.

The preschoolers were more affectionate among one other and less belligerent than their U. S. counterparts (Davis, 1999: 81). 50 second grade children, 25 males and females, participated in a research experiment conducted by John and Erin Carton in examining the impact maternal warmth had on children’s learning experience. It was discovered that mothers that frequently smiled, gazed, and provided reassuring touches to their children increased their self-confidence when examining their environments and the repercussions of their actions. Furthermore, these children were found to participate in less distracting, “off-task” behavior.

The opposite was found to be true for the children who received little or no maternal affection (Carton, 1998: 83). Although 50 Caucasian American second graders are not a representative sample, the results of the both studies are profound and confirm the previous studies done on maternal warmth, reinforcing the importance of loving touch. The loving bond established between mother and child is so crucial because it gives child the necessary tools for creating and maintaining future. The influence of Freud can still be felt today.

With his theory on children developing sexual feelings for opposite sex parents, the Oedipus complex, many parents stop touching their children as soon as they reach puberty. However, adolescents’ need for touch increases. Although they may outwardly avoid parents’ touch, by acting timid and mature, they still want reassuring, comforting touch. In addition, it is important for children to learn and understand the different types of loving touch; some are sexual while many others are not (Davis, 1999:86).

Teachers and caregivers also must be educated. Appropriate touches and preventing and recognizing child abuse are important topics for teacher training sessions. In a world where physical interaction with and among our children has become a concern for parents, many teachers, adult friends and even family members are often, subconsciously, avoiding any type of physical contact with the children they encounter each day. Just as loving touch has the power to emotionally and physically heal, the lack of loving touch has the adverse effects.


Andersen, J. E. , P. A. Andersen, and L. W. Lusting (1987) ‘Opposite Sex Touch Avoidance: A National Replication and Extension’, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Vol. 2, pp. 89-109. Carton, J. S. and E. R. Carton, (1998) ‘Nonverbal Maternal Warmth and Children’s Locus of Control of Reinforcement’, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Vol. 1, pp. 77-86 Davis, P. (1999). The Power of Touch. California: Hay House, Inc. , Fosshage, J. L. (2000) ‘The Meanings of Touch in Psychoanalysis: A Time for Reassesment’, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, Vol. 20, [On-Line] Available: http://www. psychoanalyticinquiry. com/vol20no1. html [2000, Nov. 9] Hosking, G. (1997), ‘The Root Causes of Violence’, [On-Line] Available: http://wwwave. org/Root_Causes_of_Violence. htm [2000, Oct. 17] MSN Encarta World English Dictionary (2000), [On-Line] Available: http://dictionary. msn. com Montagu, A. , (1986), The Human Significance of the Skin, 3rd edition. New York, Harper & Row Publishers.

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