The importance of touch in early childhood

All types of sensory stimulation – sound, visual, smell – are important for babies and little children. But, of all these senses, the role of touch in child development is unique.

For example, touch helps to regulate a baby’s heart rate and breathing. Touch also helps promote healthy weight gain, and even seems to play a role in cognitive and social development (Ardiel & Rankin, 2010; Stack in Bremmer & Fogel, 2001). Babies who miss out on enough healthy touch, can develop a medical condition known as failure-to-thrive. In the worst case scenarios, touch deprivation has been linked to developmental delays and other serious consequences.

Talking and touch

Researchers have known for a long time that even newborn babies prefer the sound of their parents’ voices over a stranger’s. When speaking with infants, most adults have a tendency to use a slightly higher pitch and longer vowels. This is called ‘infant-directed speech’ and it has a slightly musical sound. Most adults in most cultures use this musical voice automatically.

Infant-directed speech certainly appears to play a role in language development. More recently, researchers have discovered infant-directed speech appears to help babies focus attention. Using touch when we talk with little children, seems to amplify these effects. For example, one recent study found that touching a baby while you speak helps increase their recall of certain words.

There is also some evidence that this sort of nurturing interaction – using gentle speech and touch together –  has protective benefits for brain development.

Babies have something to say

All babies use their body movements as a form of ‘language’ to signal what is happening in their brain, mood and emotions. ‘Cue-based approaches’ to caring for babies aim to recognize these signals, and then to modify interactions in response to what the baby is ‘saying’.

Researchers call this type of interaction ‘serve-and-return’. There is mounting evidence that healthy serve-and-return interactions form the basis of high-quality infant and toddler care.

Serve-and-return interactions – using touch, movement, voice and eye-contact – allow babies to maintain attention and essential bodily functions (like heart rate) (Schore, 2001). When babies are well-regulated in this way, toxic stress hormones are kept at bay (Schore, 2001; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011). This provides the best possible chance for babies to build the brain foundations needed for mental health, cognitive and social development (Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child, 2014; Shonkoff, et al., 2011).

This does not mean babies need interaction at every moment. Rather, babies who miss out on enough serve-and-return interactions throughout infancy and early childhood can experience long-term consequences.

The importance of touch in sensitive care-giving

There are more pressures on early childhood professionals than ever before. For this reason, it is important to consider the simple, everyday ways you can integrate healthy, gentle touch into the normal interactions you have with babies each day.

Connecting and communicating should be something that brings a little of the joy into our roles: rather than being another ‘job’ to tick off on the list.

Neurologists have discovered special types of nerves in the skin which communicate emotional feelings. So, healthy, gentle touch is literally the language of love for babies. Bath-time, nappy change, sleep transitions, meals and floor time all offer ample opportunities to form this connection. Rather than simply doing the task at hand, healthy touch can be used as a way to support early development.

When babies avoid touch

There is a lot of great research about the benefits of touch for babies. However, these studies do not, in any way, suggest that all babies benefit simply from ‘being touched’.

Likewise, there is a vast difference between healthy touch, compared with touch that may be unhelpful…to say nothing of the forms of touch that are harmful or traumatising to babies.

‘Healthy touch’ can be thought of as the sort of touch that helps babies and children regulate their state of mind and emotions.  Research gives us ideas about what is true for some children, some of the time. However, babies and little children can, and do, vary widely in their responses to different types of touch, under different circumstances and at different times.

Pre-term babies, for example, often start off with much lower thresholds for moving touch than babies born at full-term. These babies therefore tend to respond best to still touch and simple skin-to-skin contact (Warren & Bond, 2010). And even babies at similar developmental stages can vary widely in their preferences for touch (Harrison, Leeper & Yoon, 2006; Warren & Bond, 2010). There also appear to be gender and other genetically-driven differences in infant’s responses to touch.

Individual differences

As well as differences between babies there is, of course, great variation in the way each individual baby responds to touch. Most parents will know, a baby can be more responsive to interaction at different times of the day depending on their sleep needs, hunger, other activities happening, their growth spurts and other transitions.

As early childhood professionals we have interactions with little children when a cuddle or gentle touch does not help settle or calm them. Using trial and error to learn about each baby is a normal part of the relationship. This trial and error is, in fact, necessary and contributes to healthy development (Lewis, 2000; Tronick & Beeghly, 2011).

In short, there are no one-size-fits all approach to healthy touch

The most important thing is to remember that babies are people too. Babies have their own preferences and moods, which change at different stages through development and even throughout the day. The key to using healthy touch is to experiment and see what each baby likes, by noticing and responding to their cues.

Alice Campbell

Alice originally trained as a Registered Nurse, and is an Early Childhood Educator. For 25 years has worked with parents, health and early childhood professionals, and organisations to strengthen development and learning outcomes. She specialises in the use of relationship-based practice and early mental health, social and emotional development. Her many achievements have been recognised in child protection, violence prevention, and early childhood education awards.