The Science of Touch: A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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When I was a new Mum, I was warned not to carry my baby too much or he would get spoiled. “Try not to pick him up immediately when he cries or he will expect to be picked up whenever he makes a sound,” they said. In my ignorance, I heeded that advice – initially – until I learned that you can’t spoil babies because their rational brains are too undeveloped for them to have the clarity of thought to manipulate their parents.

When babies are born, much of the rational brain is undeveloped and they are ruled largely by their reptilian and mammalian brains in the first few years of life. Given the very limited repertoire of actions a babies has at birth, crying is a baby’s only means of saying, “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m overstimulated”. When babies cry, they are not trying to exercise their lungs or control their parents. They cry because they are communicating a need whether emotional or physical. For a baby, an emotional need is no less important than a physical need, and when that emotional need is unfulfilled, the pain the baby feels can be as strong as a physical hurt.

Touch is as Essential as Sunlight

Contrary to the early parenting advice I received, picking up babies and holding them a lot is not really bad for them at all – in fact, it is important because babies need touch. It is vital for their survival.

At the end of World War II, the babies raised in the arms of village women, surrounded by children, goats and dogs, who were fed goat’s milk and eventually from the communal stockpot, were thriving better than the babies who were sent to pristine field hospitals where they slept in stainless steel cots, lived in hygienic wards and received 24-hour feeds of special infant milk formula.

The reason for this is because one of the basic needs a baby requires is love – which, when you break it down, is really just the physical and emotional connection to another person.

See also: Children need touching and attention – Harvard University

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The science of touch supports this. Even as babies grow into children, they will continue to need that connection in order to grow, learn and stay healthy.

Young children, especially, emotionally recharge themselves by connecting with their parents through touch. You may notice this when your toddler climbs onto your lap only to bounce off again seconds later to run off an play.

The biggest compliment a child can give a parent is to frequently run back to touch them briefly.  Such actions are known as “emotional refueling” – a child’s need to reconnect with Mum so they can continue with their independent activities. – The Science of Parenting

Touch remains important whether you are dealing with adults or children – something to remember as our children grow older… even our teenagers who get embarrassed by our public displays of affection will still enjoy a hug in private.

When I was a student, I had to assist in a surgical procedure. The patient needed a biopsy of his jaw joint and the surgeon had requested the anaesthetist to insert the tube through the patient’s nose. Inserting the tube through the nose is much more uncomfortable than if it goes through the mouth and I remember watching as the patient writhed on the operating table. Many times, I wanted to take his hand to offer support but I was scared that he would discard my hand in disdain. When I finally worked up the courage to take his hand, he surprised me by gripping my hand back and I realised I was silly not to have offered my hand sooner.

Image Source: Tohoku J Exp Med 2011

Touch Therapy

Proper uses of touch can also play a role in the healing practice of medicine:

  • studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
  • massage therapy reduces pain in pregnant women and alleviates prenatal depression.
  • getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Proper uses of touch can also make a difference in effective education:

  • when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.
  • when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.
  • touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children – some research suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.

Touch Increases Compliance, Helping Behaviour and Performance

There are numerous studies demonstrating the power of touch. Something as simple as a light touch on the arm can increase compliance and helping behaviour:

  • it can encourage people to return a lost item
  • it can encourage people to leave a bigger tip
  • it makes people more likely to help out
  • it encourages people to be more compliant
  • it can increase your chances of selling your car
  • it can increase your chances of getting a date

Touch can even increase performance:

A touch can be so subtle and fleeting, but its effect transcends – we may not even remember the touch, but we will remember the way we felt.

Appropriate Touches

As always, with a topic as sensitive as this, some caution and disclaimers are necessary. While touch can be extremely beneficial, it must also remain in the realm of propriety. What’s appropriate or inappropriate depends on many factors:

  • your relationship with the individual
  • cultural considerations
  • quality of the touch – intensity, duration and circumstances
  • accompanying signals – e.g. eye to eye contact

For a general guideline of what is appropriate, San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functionsmakes the following recommendation:

Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it’s always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate. The back is very low in nerve endings, so that’s OK too. – Psychology Today


Babies Need Love to Survive

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When Aristotle was born, I used to get warnings from well-intentioned relatives that I shouldn’t carry Aristotle too much or he would get spoilt and expect to be carried all the time.  One of those well-intentioned relatives happened to be my mother who was rather proud of the fact that she left my brother to cry in his cot swinging his arms and legs until his momentum brought him from one end of the cot to the other where he finally fell asleep in exhaustion.

Well, that might have been the way things were done back then, but I certainly wasn’t exactly going to employ my mother’s methods.  Nevertheless, I was swayed a little on the spoiling bit so I tried to encourage Aristotle to lie on his own for as much of the day as possible.  Although I would always picked him up when he cried, I would leave him to lie on his own when he wasn’t fussing because I didn’t want him to develop an expectation that he was going to be carried all the time.

Needless to say that I eventually threw that idea out the door as well when I realised that I enjoyed holding my little boy close to me.  Since all babies eventually grow up, I figured I had better make the most of it while he would still allow me to carry him.  Perhaps it was just as well that I did…

Babies can die from “lack of love”…

When I was in Uni, I received a series of lectures about child development.  During one of those lectures, our lecturer told us about a very interesting study on babies – the conclusion of which was that aside from basic care, babies also need touch to thrive.  I had forgotten all about that study until I came across a similar study in “The Complete Secrets of Happy Children”.

Below is the gist of the study that I recalled hearing about from my lecturer.  I’m afraid this is all based on what I remember hearing and I don’t even have the details of the study – as is the case of Chinese Whispers, I’m not sure if I’ve adapted the information since it is all based on the accuracy of my memory.  Back then, my interest in children was probably at an all-time low and my attention in lectures was primarily focused on passing rather than because of any deep and meaningful interest in the subject.

They had two groups of infants.  One group that was cared for by nurses who only tended to the babies basic needs.  The babies were handled only when they needed to be fed and cleaned.  In the other group of infants, the babies were also carried, and the carers interacted with the babies.  They found that babies in the first group were stunted in their growth.  Despite getting all the necessary care, they did not grow according as well as the babies that received more touch from their carers.

And below is the other study as cited from “The Complete Secrets of Happy Children”, which I thought I had better add since there is a possibility of embellishment of the above study since the reliance upon memory is always somewhat questionable (and hubby would say that mine is more so than the average person).

At the end of World War II, there were a lot of orphans who needed care.  A Swiss doctor travelled around to learn what were the best methods for taking care of orphaned babies.  He travelled around Europe and examined all the different styles of orphan-care to determine which was the most successful style.  He witnessed a large spectrum of infant care.

In some places where American field hospitals had been set up, babies were snug in stainless steel cots, in hygienic wards and getting 24-hour feeds of special infant milk formula from nurses in crisply starched, white uniform.

At the other end of the spectrum were the remote mountain villages where a truck would pull up and ask the villagers if they could look after half a dozen babies.  These babies were raised in the arms of the village women, surrounded by children, goats and dogs.  They were fed goat’s milk and eventually ate from the communal stockpot.

The doctor’s method of comparing the different forms of care was by using the death rate.  This was a time where dysentery and influenza took lives of many throughout Europe, yet the children raised in the villages were thriving better than those children who were cared for in the scientifically-managed hospitals.

Babies need love to thrive

The conclusion was clear.  Babies needed “love” to thrive.  In other words, he said:

  • infants need frequent skin-to-skin contact from two or three significant people
  • infants need movement of a fairly robust kind, e.g. being carried around, bouncing on a knee, etc.
  • infants need eye-contact, smiling, colourful and lively environment, and sounds, such as singing, talking, etc.

Looks like we can all carry our babies to our heart’s content, guilt-free that we might be spoiling them.  After all, it’s part of that very essential vitamin L that babies need to thrive.

The science of touch

Update 1: There is an article: “Hands on Research: The Science of Touch” that further affirms the importance of touch – not just for babies but for everyone.

“Touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children: Some research by Tiffany Field suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.”

Update 2: According to Harvard researchers, Children Need Touching and Attention.

Instead of letting infants cry, American parents should keep their babies close, console them when they cry, and bring them to bed with them, where they’ll feel safe… The early stress resulting from separation causes changes in infant brains that makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives. – Michael L. Commons and Patrice M. Miller, researchers at the Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.

In light of the recent “disciplinary” issues I have been having with Aristotle, this made me reassess how I handled Aristotle in times when he was being “disciplined” for misbehaviour. If difficult children can be reached more easily with touch, then surely it would work just as well with “normal” children? Perhaps if we applied more “touch” during discipline, there might be a greater willingness to cooperate? It seems highly likely when you consider the following findings:

” When psychologist Robert Kurzban had participants play the “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which they could choose either to cooperate or compete with a partner for a limited amount of money, an experimenter gently touched some of the participants as they were starting to play the game—just a quick pat on the back. But it made a big difference: Those who were touched were much more likely to cooperate and share with their partner.”

“A study by French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen has found that when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.”

10 Psychological effects of non-sexual touch – a simple (nonsexual) touch can increase compliance, cooperation, honesty, generosity, and willingness to help.

If touch helps our children cooperate more readily, then this is one disciplinary tactic we should be using more often. The benefits of touch go beyond discipline – it’s also beneficial to our children’s overall health and emotional well-being.

I also recall reading elsewhere that when our children are young we generally fulfill their need for touch pretty well. As they grow older, however, we touch them less even though their need for touch is just as high as it was when they were little. When they fail to get adequate touch from their parents, they look elsewhere – namely, girlfriends and boyfriends. So even though your teenage son gets embarrassed when you hug him in front of his friends, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be hugged any more, he just prefers to be hugged privately when his friends aren’t around to judge him.

Baby massages

If love to a baby is touch, then baby massages are the epitome of love. Here are 15 ways you can massage your baby:

Image Source: Mom Junction

More on Parenting

Here’s another article on parenting from C reinforcing the need to be attentive to baby in the early developmental stages:

Children Need Touching and Attention, Harvard Researchers Say

We are all afraid of over babying our children because we want them to grow up strong and independent. Ironically, research is proving that the way to go about this is in actual fact the opposite to what we were taught. Attending to a baby’s cries reinforces their self-confidence when they grow up.

Quite early on when my friend PL had her baby girl, we also talked about this. We were both of the same mind that we didn’t want to “spoil” our children by giving in to their whims and fancies, but at what age do we start the disciplining? Her daughter E is still too young to understand and PL has succumbed to her motherly instincts, picking her up whenever she cries, even if she’s just fretting about something that cannot be determined.

As C aptly put it, it seems Mummy’s instincts fit well with science. I guess that’s just God’s way of nudging us in the right direction in our quest to be “good” parents.