Most of us give little thought to the sense of touch, which often lags behind the other senses in our conscious awareness. But we ignore it at our peril.
The physiological effects of loving touch read like a pharmaceutical company’s wonder drug. Touching lowers the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts “feel-good” endorphins, along with oxytocin, the hormone largely responsible for bonding behavior. In both children and adults, the physiological effects of positive touch include:
- Strengthened immune system
- Lowered heart rate
- Lowered blood pressure
- Increased circulation
- Reduced pain
- Reduced stress, anxiety and fatigue
But the benefits of touch reach far beyond the merely physical. Babies who do not receive adequate human interaction – and especially loving touch – become depressed and anxious, fail to grow properly, experience developmental delays, and are prone to violence and compulsive and/or anti-social behavior. Touch deprivation, in extreme cases, can even result in death.
An unexpected benefit of touch
Scientists are just beginning to study how touch affects communication and human interaction. But early research is yielding intriguing results. A recent University of California, Berkely study of NBA basketball players reveals a particularly compelling reason to pay attention to how – and how much – we touch each other.
Study results indicate that higher levels of touching (high-fives, pats on the back, etc.) between individual teammates in early season games have a high correlation to overall team success over the course of the season.
The study’s researchers infer that frequent touch is likely to result in greater levels of trust and cooperation, which in turn lead to higher levels of group performance and team success. If they are right, it would seem to follow that lavishing our children with loving touch may have far-reaching benefits to our families, our society – and even to the very planet we depend on.
The world may not have ended with the Mayan calendar last December, but it is clear that we have entered a new era that will demand a radical change in mindset if we are to survive as a species. Global climate change, peak oil and the increasing demands of an ever-increasing population present problems solvable only through unprecedented cooperative action.
Of course, touching each other more is by no means a complete solution to our planetary woes. But it can be a powerful technique to enhance cooperation within our families – and from there, within society at large.
Tapping in to the power of touch
There are plenty of ways to incorporate touch into our family lives. If you have an infant, attachment parenting techniques such as on-demand breastfeeding, babywearing, bed sharing and infant massage are all ideal ways to ensure that both you and your baby get the maximum benefits of nurturing touch.
As our children grow older, however, it can be hard to maintain a strong culture of touch. Here are just a few suggestions for structuring healthy “touch time” into our families’ lives:
- Limit computer use. If your child must be on the computer for extended periods of time, set her up in a common area of the home where you can pat her back or tousle her hair as you pass.
- Cuddle and huddle. Children love to cuddle – why not make it routine? Pile the whole family on the couch while watching TV instead of sitting in separate chairs. Or, make it a habit to all cuddle together for stories or devotions before bed each night.
- Massage. Bedtime backrubs can help both parent and child relax at the end of the day. As kids get older, have the whole family sit in a circle for group back, foot or hand massage.
- Hugs. Make a routine out of hugging your children when they get up, when they’re leaving for school, when they get home, before bed, or whenever it seems appropriate.
- Incidental touch. Make an extra effort to reach out and touch your child anytime you pass him. A light touch on the arm or back also helps your child focus on you when you need his attention.
Try a few of these suggestions – or come up with your own ways of encouraging physical – and see if it doesn’t help foster an increased sense of cooperation and teamwork within your family. If so, you can feel good knowing you’re preparing your children well for the world of the future.
By Anne Michelsen, a former La Leche League Leader and bemused mother of two delightfully unconventional teenagers. As a freelance copywriter, she helps ethical and sustainable companies promote their products, and enjoys writing the occasional article on environmental issues.