No matter how well-nourished and intellectually stimulated a child is, going without human touch can stunt his mental, emotional and even physical growth; it potentially affects the child for years to come. In fact, according to a May 2010 article in "Scientific American," orphaned children who experience touch deprivation early in life have altered levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones important for social bonding, even three years after being placed with a family.
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Growth and Survival
Touch is essential for human survival; babies who are deprived of touch can fail to thrive, lose weight and even die. Babies and young children who do not get touched also have lower levels of growth hormone, so a lack of touch can actually stunt a child's growth. The immune systems of children who are deprived of touch may also be weaker than those who receive plenty of physical affection; plenty of touch earlier in life can lead to physiological changes that might protect against later disease, including cardiovascular disease. However, studying touch in children is difficult, since it is hard to isolate its effects from other forms of parental attention and care; the full benefits and impact on development remain unknown.
In addition to the impact on physical growth and development, touch boosts a child's brain development, too. This has an impact on everything from short-term behavior to long-term mental and emotional development. Babies who receive a lot of touching sleep better at night and are less fussy during the day, according to pediatrician Dr. William Sears. Children who are not touched enough have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can actually damage brain tissue in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory and learning.
According to an article in the May 2010 issue of "Scientific American," babies who are touched often start recognizing their mother and father earlier, facilitating the bonding process. A child with a strong bond to her caregivers often develops better self-confidence and is better able to relate to other people as an adolescent and adult.
Offer your child touch in many different ways, from cuddling to baby massages. Follow your child's cues; offer hugs or other forms of touch whenever your child asks for them or appears to need comfort. Some babies and children are more sensitive to touch than others and can easily become over-stimulated. If your child gets upset when cuddled, offer gentle, light touches and gradually get her used to physical affection. Children who have special needs might require even more touch than other children, so giving regular massages and cuddles can help parents become more aware of their child's particular needs.