The Importance of Touch for Babies and Kids

Most of us give little thought to the sense of touch, which often lags behind the other senses in our conscious awareness. But the many benefits of touch – especially for infants – are worth noting.

The many benefits of touch for infants and beyond

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

It’s pretty clear touch is good for us. But the benefits of touch reach far beyond the merely physical. Babies who do not receive adequate human interaction—and especially loving touch—can suffer later on. They may become depressed and anxious, fail to grow properly, experience developmental delays, and can beprone to violence and compulsive and/or anti-social behavior.

Touch deprivation, in extreme cases, can even result in death.

An Unexpected Benefit of Human Touch

A 2017 study found that infant touch can affect children at the molecular level. And the positive results can last for years. The study published in Development and Psychopathology, involved 94 healthy children in British Columbia.

Parents of 5-week-old babies were asked to keep a diary of their infants’ behavior (sleeping, eating, fussing, etc.) along with an account of the caregiving that involved bodily contact. When the children were about 4 ½ years old, their DNA was sampled by swabbing the inside of their cheeks.

The team examined a biochemical modification called DNA methylation, in which some parts of the chromosome are tagged with small molecules made of carbon and hydrogen. These molecules act as “dimmer switches” that help to control how active each gene is, and thus affect how cells function.

Scientists found consistent methylation differences between high-contact and low-contact children at five specific DNA sites. Two of these sites fall within genes: one plays a role in the immune system, and the other is involved in metabolism.

The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had a lower epigenetic age than expected, given their actual age. Discrepancies between epigenetic age and chronological age have been linked to poor overall health.

The Importance of Touch for Babies

There are plenty of ways to incorporate touch into our family lives. If you have an infant, you might find yourself touched-out by some of the long days and nights. Make sure to practice self care so that you get enough of a separation to appreciate in advance the benefits of all your attachment parenting efforts.

On-demand breastfeeding. One of the most worthwhile commitments, nursing provides the ultimate in physical and emotional nutrition for your baby.

Babywearing. Wear your infant in a soothing pouch shirt for maximum support when she’s tiny. Older babies will enjoy a wrap (learn how to use one here) or soft-structured carrier to be close to mom or dad and still see what’s going on around them.

Infant massage. Better health, improved sleep, increased bonding, and overall wellbeing…. these are some of the remarkable benefits of infant massage.

The Importance of Touch for Older Children

As our children grow older, however, it can be hard to maintain a strong culture of contact. Your child should always know they are safe to set their own personal boundaries.

Here are some ideas for structuring healthy “touch time” into our families’ lives:

  • Give hugs. Make a routine out of hugging your children when they get up, when they leave for school, when they get home, before bed, or whenever it seems appropriate.
  • Limit screen time. 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.
  • Make time to cuddle. 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.
  • Give good night back rubs. Bedtime back rubs 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.
  • Incorporate 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.

Adults Need Physical Contact Too

A University of California, Berkeley study of NBA basketball players reveals a particularly compelling reason to pay attention to how — and how much — we touch each other.

Study results indicated that higher levels of touching (high-fives, pats on the back, etc.) between individual teammates in early season games had 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. This in turn can 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 contact may have far-reaching benefits to our families and our society.

It is clear we have entered a new era that will demand a radical change in mindset if we are to survive as a species. Many over our current problems need 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.

Try a few of these suggestions – or come up with your own ways of encouraging physical touch – and see if it doesn’t help foster an increased sense of cooperation and teamwork within your family.

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  1. Kelley M Gaither says:

    I’m a psych major, and we learned early on about the experiments done that stress the important nature of touch beyond core care of a child…the studies done in the 40’s in Iran in orphanages showed that infants who received incidental touch and massage were much more likely to thrive than their merely ‘cared for’ counterparts. It reminds me also of a story my cousin told me about a child in her family that was left in its car seat all the time, never held. The parents spent no quality time with it…it ended up dying.

  2. I love this article. I don’t remember being hugged or touched as a child accept in controlling non-loving ways. I love cuddles with my son. I hope it makes him a better person but I know being able to express that love has made me a better person too