Conversely, touch deprivation of babies and older children has drastic effects, some of which, if left untreated, can span well into adolescence and adulthood.
As with every powerful tool, touch has a reverse side to it. Touch deprivation can severely harm infants and children, and inhibit human relationships, a fact which has been extensively documented in disorders affecting children raised in institutions such as orphanages.
The effects of touch deprivation can be classified as being immunological, physiological, and behavioral. Immunological effects cause stress-induced activation of the pituitary-adrenal system, which, in turn, leads to increased cortisol and adreno corticotropic hormone. These stress hormones, in turn, play a key role in physiological effects of touch deprivation, though studies on animals have shown that tactile stimulation can favorably reverse the detrimental biochemical effects.
Likewise, behavioral studies show that touch is more critical than any other form of contact in mother-infant bonding, lacking which there is a tendency to avoid social contact, to be hyper-aggressive, exhibiting anger, and depression symptoms.
What Does This Mean to You?
As parents and primary caregivers of our children, we need to be aware of our children's innate needs. Holding, rocking, hugging, and cuddling a crying child (or one who is not crying, for that matter) does not constitute spoiling, but is an instinctual response to a child's primary needs for love, security, and affection, inasmuch as providing nutrition is necessary to a child's physical well-being.
Touch provides the input the brain needs to develop its potential, and responding to a child's need for touch helps build up the trust necessary to building a healthy relationship, both present and future.
We need to be cautious to avoid the abuse of the ever-growing list of baby gear considered necessary by so many parents. Given the constant demands on our time, it would be all too easy to slip into a routine of baby stroller to baby swing, baby rocker to walker, high chair to playpen, thus losing precious opportunities to cuddle our children and give them the tactile stimulation so necessary to their development.
Baby slings and carriers enable nurturing one's child while working or playing. Says La Leche League, the international support organization for nursing mothers and their babies, "Carrying an infant close to the heart and baby's source of nourishment promotes bonding and intimacy. Infants feel very secure and thrive. Being carried in this way lays the foundation for good feelings of self-worth and sociability. Your baby can be exposed to a variety of experiences and yet feel safe and secure in its cocoon: 'The womb with a view.'"
Parents considering adoption of a child who may have been subjected to touch deprivation can refer to the following resources:
- Clinical Implications of Attachment, Jay Belsky & Teresa Nezworski, Lawrence Eribaum Assoc.
- Theraplay, Ann Jernberg, Jossey-Bass Publishers, Therapy Institute in Chicago
- Sensory Integration and the Child, by Dr. A. Jean Ayres, PhD, OTR (Published by Western Psychological)
To locate a therapist in your area, be sure to visit Sensory Integration International for more information.