A child learns to regulate her emotions only through the process of co-regulation. And, touch is a powerful way to calm a distressed, sad, angry child. When parents respond to a child’s distress by lifting her up and soothingly holding their child in their arms, the nervous system shifts from a flight-fight stress state to a parasympathetic state of calm. Thus, in the warm, soothing arms of our caregiver, the scaffolding of our brain development begins.
Touch is the earliest sensory modality to develop and to become functional prior to any other sensory modalities
Loving touch releases oxytocin, the love hormone which inhibits the release of cortisol. It makes us feel safe, connected, and understood. A caring touch conveys more than a thousand words. Yet, most caregivers fail to give this vital nourishment to their kids.
Consistent affectionate touch during the first years shapes the numerous mind-body systems like the stress response, the vagus nerve function, and the hormonal system. While lack of loving touch exacerbates the stress response with cascading effects on our physical and mental wellness.
Studies have shown that touch deprivation during early childhood is associated with increased aggression. Children who receive more positive touch have better self-regulation and are more cooperative.
As the baby is touched, or has skin-to-skin contact, or is breastfed, her nervous system is calmed, the biological clock organizes, and the vagal tone develops.
Kangaroo Care and Co-Regulation
Birth can be a disorienting process for a baby. From the warm, safe confines of the womb, they are thrust into a world that could overwhelm and stress their under-developed nervous system.
Psychologist, Darcia F. Narvaez succinctly puts it, ‘Human babies are born “half-baked” and require an external womb’.
By simply re-creating a womb-like environment (namely skin-to-skin touch – kangaroo care) for a new-born, the nervous system can calm down and begin developing. Skin-to-skin contact in the first weeks and months of life can even turn on or off the genes that regulate a baby’s stress response system.
Kangaroo-care in the first 3 months after birth has far-reaching benefits to this tiny developing human being. Your baby will be calmer, better emotionally regulated, and less clingy.
I speak from experience, simply co-sleeping, and attending to my son during the initial months made the rest of parenting a walk in the park. Not really, but must say I did not have to deal with major issues like teenage angst or any major turmoils. He transited easily into adulthood and I believe it all comes to giving enough loving touches, co-sleeping, carrying, hugging, horse-playing, when he was a baby.
Non-verbal loving touch-based interactions between ages 0 -10 help create an empathic map in our nervous system. Consistent and reliable emotional attunement in a nurturing environment in childhood sets the stage for a well-regulated and healthy nervous system as an adult.
They become calmer and centered within themselves. Stressful people or places leave them non-reactive.
Touch and Mylienation of the Developing Brain
A baby’s brains contain very little myelin ( white matter) and studies show that touch promotes the growth of myelin– the fatty tissue that wraps around the axon. Now the axon is the connecting nerve fibers that connect various neurons in our brain. This dense, fatty substance that insulates the nerve fibers, helps with clear, efficient transmission of electrical signals to other neurons. We have heard about neurons that fire together wire together. However, when this connecting cable is poorly myelinated messages are not properly transmitted or do not get transmitted at all.
One could call myelination the subway of the brain – connecting different regions of grey matter in the cerebrum to one another. All the grey matter cannot be optimally utilized without the connecting white matter to transmit information.
It is in the first 2 years of life that most of the myelination of the axonal structures occurs. Generally, myelination will start in the brainstem and progress to the cerebellum and basal ganglia then will continue to the cerebrum.
Damaged myelin leaves gaps in the neural network which can lead to cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional deficits.
Lack of Touch and Failure to Thrive
Touch stimulates growth-promoting hormones and increases the enzymes that make the cells of the vital organs more responsive to the growth-promoting effects of these hormones.
Touch can instantly boost the level of oxytocin. When oxytocin is increased, several growth hormones, such as insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1) and nerve growth factor (NGF), increases too.
Most of us have heard of the heart-breaking case of the Romanian orphans. How lack of loving touch and caring affected their mental and physical growth.
Failure to thrive is symbiotically connected with the lack of caring touch. No doubt, nurturing touch enhances a child’s growth.
Touch and Stress Hormones
Furthermore, touch releases oxytocin is the neurochemical antidote to the cortisol that fuels the “fight-flight-freeze” response to any perceived threat or danger. Oxytocin switches on the calming parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. Thus quelling the fear response of the amygdala.
Hugging a dysregulated child not only helps them regulate but also allows them to feel their emotions being regulated. This crucial early life experience is how a child learns to develop self-regulation skills and build resilience.
Lack of warmth and touch in a child’s life can de-stabilize the full maturation of oxytocin receptors in the brain. It is this deficiency of parental love that makes it harder for them to feel empathy and trust other people later in life.
The Neuroscience of Touch
Touchy-Feely Memories that Last a Lifetime
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused chaos and emotional dysregulation in our lives. Instead of stressing about school and lesson plans focus on creating a safe haven inside your home. There is no better way to keep calm than by lovingly touching our kids. Both parent and child benefit from it.
Take this as an opportunity to bond together, hug, snuggle up and watch a movie, or play a game. It is up to you as a parent to use your most potent power, touch to calm and regulate your child. When they look back at this time their memory will be full of touchy-feely-loving times. Our bodies are primed to relax when we are touched. Those visceral memories will be their go-to treasures they can take comfort from whenever they are faced with tough times.
Ref: Developmental Perspectives on Interpersonal Affective Touch
The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development
Image Source: Pexels
Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind – David Linden