Monday, September 8, 2008

In-Depth Reflections: Touch

As a little girl, I remember begging my mother to stay close whenever I was sick. If I had a fever it was too uncomfortable to be held, yet just seeing her didn't provide the reassurance I sought. So, I would hold her index finger in my hand. That small skin to skin contact was enough to comfort me.

The power of touch is so important, but so often overlooked. We ignore the emotional responses our children are having through this constant input and analysis of data, probably because we are so used to dealing with this sensory input. It's easy to forget how deeply we are affected by touch.

I found an article on BabyZone that reminded me of things I had long ago learned and forgotten plus giving me some new statistics as well. Did you know that at birth the sense of touch is the most developed of all our senses? No wonder there are so many instinctual and wonderfully beneficial responses to skin to skin contact in babies. Check out these lovely points of interest as well:

The sense of touch is located in all the areas of the skin—that thin, less than one millimeter-thick barrier that separates our inner selves from the outside world. Unlike the senses of hearing, sight, smell, and taste, which are centralized in a specific area of the human head, touch receptors are spread out in all areas of the skin, located throughout our bodies. For this reason, touch vastly exceeds all other senses in sheer extent.

Touch receptors are connected to nerve fibers in the skin, which convey messages of pain, heat, cold, texture, and pressure to the brain, where those sensations are identified and their origins defined, often sending a lightning-fast reaction through the nervous system. The latter records those sensations (awareness, pleasant, innocuous, etc.), and acts as a defense mechanism, alerting the brain to potentially life-threatening situations.

Simply touching skin can create hormonal and emotional reactions, known as a "limbic touch responses," involving the affected tactile nerves under the skin. Touch can also aid in the production of endorphins: brain chemicals that kill pain naturally while bringing feelings of happiness, and heightening sensory perception. Enkephalin, an endorphin, produces euphoria while reducing pain.

There's a lot of good stuff happening through touch. I love the fact that our brain processes the feel of different things so it can act as a defense mechanism. It makes perfect sense, but I love to understand exactly what amazing functions are going on in our bodies. And the endorphins? Come on, who wouldn't want more endorphins pumping through their bodies at the end of a long day?

Older children might be harder to cuddle with, but they still need loving contact. This article discusses how touch therapy, or massage, can help to improve asthmatic and diabetic children as well as newborn and preemie babies. That is one creative way you might be able to pin down an older child for a few minutes--who doesn't enjoy a nice massage, or even one of those light tickle touches. It seems most people melt into putty when you start that.

In a world that seems to be constantly moving towards less and less physical contact between people, lets make a conscious effort to shower our children with comforting, reassuring touch on a regular basis. They aren't going to get it anywhere else, so we need to work overtime. Plus, we could sure use some of those calming benefits as well. So look for informal opportunities to increase touch between you and your child: while watching TV, when they first wake up, when reading a story together, and especially anytime they need comfort.

I've only put together a few thoughts here. Please share any personal experiences you may have had in dealing with the sense of touch or research and activities you may have come across. I have no doubt that some of you know a whole lot more about this than I do. Time to share!


Erin said...

I've also noticed how different my two children are in terms of how much/how often they want to be close to me. One is a snuggler and one just doesn't care that much. I still try to get loves from him anyway!

Professional Mommy said...

I used to give my daughter massages when she was an infant. Now that she's a toddler she doesn't want them and I think they would be good to calm her down. However, I do cuddle as much as possible and one of the things I love about my daughter is how she's always rubbing my back or stroking my face. I hope it stays like that!