Laura Steckley

Many of us intuitively know that touch is necessary for healthy development. This hasn’t always been the case, however. In 1928, JB Watson, a founder of behaviourism and popular author on child-rearing, wrote:

There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them and bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug or kiss them, never let them sit in our lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good-night.

Early psychoanalytic thinkers emphasized the importance of separation and levels of emotional detachment to prevent children from being overly dependent. Our views on touch may have some grounding in instinct or intuition, but they are strongly shaped by dominant discourses which are influenced by so-called experts.

While it is easy to assume that our thinking is now more enlightened, I still encounter (usually indirectly) residential child care staff who assert that “cuddling and that stuff” isn’t necessary and isn’t part of their job (in Scotland, a cuddle is simply a hug). Within the wider culture, there are competing (often confused) concerns about children, one of which is that they are overindulged. It is important that we proceed in an informed way in our efforts to nurture kids “giving comfort and satisfying desires but also facilitating the capacity to tolerate frustration and delay gratification.

Currently, one dominant discourse related to touch affirms its centrality to healthy development. Touch is the first of the five senses to develop. Research on the role of touch in mammalian development demonstrates its contribution to physical growth and weight gain (from infancy), increased activity, decreased fearfulness, increased resistance to stress and the development of the immune system. Specific to humans, links have been established between touch and the development of the hippocampus and with decreased levels of cortisol “a hormone associated with stress. In one study, doctors increased the amount of skin to skin contact between infants and mothers by six hours over the first three days after birth. One month after birth, they found that these mothers soothed their infants more, fondled them more, made more eye contact and made fewer commands than those mothers and infants who had routine contact. What is so compelling is that five years later, the children who received more touch scored higher on IQ and language tests than their less-initially-touched counterparts.

One way of understanding these findings is that the increased levels of touch at a critical time set a stronger foundation for attachment and bonding. Processes of attachment necessarily involve holding; close contact during feeding, changing and bathing; and physical forms of soothing, stimulation and affection. Forms of touch are also a vital component of the ongoing processes that enable a child to feel accepted and valued (identified as the Positive Interaction Cycle in Attachment Theory).

Yet we know that many kids in residential child care have experienced transgressive touch in the forms of physical and/or sexual abuse, or have experienced touch deprivation (or both). This complicates what might be seen as “natural” integration of touch into day to day care practices. While a complete avoidance of touch might seem to be the safest, easiest option, in this case (and it is often the case that) neither “safe” nor “easy” are in the best interest of kids. Touch deprivation can severely affect sleeping patterns in children, and has been associated with the suppression of the immune system, delays in physical growth, dermatitis, asthma and even cardiovascular disease. Touch deprived animals become more aggressive, and there are indications of the same for humans. In cultures where greater levels of touching are the norm, adult aggression is low; conversely, touch-limited cultures tend to have higher levels of adult aggression. This doesn’t bode well for those of us in America or the UK, as most studies indicate much lower levels of touch. For example, one study recorded the number of times people sharing a coffee touched each other in caf’s across the world. In, Puerto Rico, the total number of times was 180; in France, 110; in Florida, 2; in England, 0. Research observing the behaviour of parents and children has yielded similar findings.

Touch is an integral thread in the tapestry of our relationships and our cultures, and while it is necessary to acknowledge its role and reflect on its use, it is dangerous to regard it in isolation of these wider contexts. Yet, this is exactly what is happening across many countries, manifesting in no-touch moral panics. Many of our places of work are being affected by a conflicting dominant discourse that identifies touch as risky and/or unprofessional. This will be the focus of my column next month.

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