Physical touch is extremely important for all children. It starts from the moment our children are born and continues as they grow.
This is the very reason why immediate skin-to-skin is encouraged between baby and mother. Skin-to-skin helps regulate the babies body temperature as well as stimulating milk supply and increasing your chances of a positive breastfeeding experience.
As our children grow older, touch becomes extremely important as it is the most prominent form of communication before their language skills are fully developed.
If children experience a lack of physical touch it can slow down their growth. In fact, there have been links to increased development (mental and physical) for children who experience higher levels of physical touch from their parents or caregivers.
There is research to show that these children are less likely to experience anxiety and emotional disorders as adults. In contrast, a child that is deprived of appropriate physical touch is more likely to show aggression and behavioural issues during their teenage years.
Positive touch helps children to feel secure. It does this by telling them that they are safe and cared for. In simple terms it can be described through the breastfeeding relationship.
This is one of the earliest examples of the link between positive touch and secure attachment. Oxytocin is the love/bonding hormone and it is released during those times that we feel loved, happy and secure.
It is in ample supply when a woman is breastfeeding her baby. Through breastfeeding, both mother and child benefit from positive touch.
Mothers and fathers can benefit from positive touch when their babies are older too. Physical contact through hugs and hand-holding, for example, can reduce cortisol levels (stress hormone) for both the parents and the children.
As our children grow and develop, it is important that parents teach them about positive and negative touch. While positive touch (with the appropriate person such as parent/caregiver) has so many benefits it is equally important that our children understand the kind of touch that is not appropriate.
It is helpful to include books and toys to aid in your exploration of this topic. Children should understand that certain parts of their body are private and should not be touched by other people.
It is important to do this in a sensitive way to help children understand who and what is safe and appropriate without inflicting a sense of shame on those body parts. It can be difficult to find the balance.
It is important to keep the learning age-appropriate so that children are not overwhelmed. Younger children may benefit from using dolls or figurines to understand and name the different body parts whereas older children will benefit from exploring how they can express their comfort levels when it comes to touch. Teaching them how to say “no”, “stop” or on the flipside asking for positive touch (such as when they need a hug from a parent) is very important.