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Pleasant touch may be helpful for your infant's development

Harold Mandel's picture
A caring mother and child

When it comes to raising infants positive parental interactions including pleasant touch can be very beneficial. It has long been postulated that high quality parental interactions are very important for the healthy development of kids. In this regard certainly softly speaking to your child, playing with your child, and feeding your child well all appear to be beneficial. New research shows that caregiving touch of infants can also have very positive effects on the healthy development of kids.

It has been shown that caregiving touch is essential for the healthy growth and development of human infants, reports the journal Psychological Science. In order to test whether or not human infants are sensitive to pleasant touch, researchers examined arousal, or heart rate, and attentional engagement, consisting of gaze shifts and duration of looks, to variations in velocities of brushing in 9-month-old infants. These results offer physiological and behavioral evidence that sensitivity to pleasant touch develops early in development and therefore plays an essential role in regulating human social interactions.

There are unique physiological and behavioral responses to pleasant touch seen in infants which may assist in creating strong bonds between child and parent and nurture early social and physiological development, reports the Association for Psychological Science on April 2, 2014 in a review of the research published by the journal Psychological Science.

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It has been observed in previous studies with adults that when you stroke the skin, in response to a particular stroking velocity there is a specific type of receptor activated. This has been found to lead to the sensation of a pleasant touch. It has been hypothesized by cognitive neuroscientist Merle Fairhurst of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues that this type of response may actually emerge in infancy.

In this study the researchers had infants sit in their parents’ laps while the experimenter used a paintbrush to stroke the back of the infant’s arm. The rate of the brushstrokes was varied by the experimenter among three well defined velocities of 0.3, 3, or 30 cm per second. Physiological and behavioral measures were used to gauge the infants’ responses. It was observed that the heart rate of the infants slowed only in response to the brushstrokes when they were of medium velocity. What this means is the touch of the medium-velocity brush helped to lower their physiological arousal.

It was also noted that the infants demonstrated more engagement with the paintbrush during the medium-velocity brushstrokes, which was measured by how long and how often they looked at the brush as they were being stroked. It was interesting to note that the infants’ decreased heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely associated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch.

This link which was observed between caregiver and infant could be supported by both “nurture” and “nature” explanations, according to the researchers. Fairhurst has said, “One possibility is that infants’ sensitivity to pleasant touch stems from direct or vicarious experience of differing levels of social touch as a function of their caregiver’s sensitivity to social touch. Another possibility is that social touch is genetically heritable and therefore correlated between caregivers and infants.” The bottom line is the researchers say these findings are supportive of the concept that pleasant touch plays a significant role in human social interactions by demonstrating that the sensitivity to pleasant touch develops early in human development.

It has generally been my observation that parents who demonstrate that they are more caring of their children have happier kids who socialize better as they are growing up. The response of infants to playful talk and gestures by parents is often demonstrated in smiles and laughing by kids. It is significant to note that pleasant touch may also assist in many positive ways with the development of infants. This information should be shared with parents.