One of the first things I remember learning as a father was that touch was a huge part of the way I related to my baby. Touch was not only the best way for me to calm my infant son, it was how I got to know him and came to feel comfortable in the clothes of fatherhood.
I came to parenthood during a time when lots of experts still believed that holding babies too much made them overly dependent and interfered with their ability to self-soothe. Now, it is clear that the opposite is true. A parent/caregiver’s loving touch and physical contact is the foundation for self-regulation. Yes, other aspects of the parent-child relationship such as soothing voice and eye gaze can calm children and create points of connection. But nothing—nothing—comes close to touch in terms of co-regulation and self-regulation. And it’s not just an emotional thing. Research has shown, for example, that skin-to-skin contact helps infant regulate their internal mechanisms like breathing, heart rate and body temperature.
Another illuminating thing I learned about touch, from Linda Garofallou, who has been a presenter at SRSS, is that touch is the first of the senses to develop in the womb. What’s more, touch is the neurological foundation for all the other senses and, in fact, a lot of brain development, says Ms. Garofallou, who is a Pediatric Sensory Treatment Therapist at Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, in Montclair, New Jersey. She discusses these ideas in more detail in an excellent video webinar I watched recently.
I wasn’t thinking about such lofty things when I was learning to be a dad. But, as I discovered gradually, over the course of three babies, to ignore the “don’t hold your baby too much messages,” touch was my first “language” with my babies. Lots of touch was not only good for them, it was good me, an important part of my self-regulation as a father. Each one of our three kids was held and carried a little more than the previous one. And if we’d had a fourth baby, I’m sure that one would have been touched even more.
Research, much of it done since my first child was born, has proven that my instincts, and, it must be said, the instincts of many other parents and caregivers, especially women in traditional cultures, were right. Lots of touch helps kids develop.
I think it’s important to remember and reflect on this in the time of COVID, when touch and other forms of close contact are increasingly regarded as dangerous. I’ve even heard that some parents are feeling that they reduce physical contact with their little ones. I have no idea how common that is, but even the fact that such an idea is out there concerns me. Obviously, some kinds of physical contact with people outside of your “bubble” are best avoided right now. But that doesn’t apply to parents and kids. Little kids need lots of touch and parents are pretty much the only people they’re going to get it from these days.
So, we need to support all parents to keep touching their kids. It’s so important for them as well as kids.
I urge you to watch Linda’s video webinar. It’s a great reminder of the importance of loving touch in self-regulation, co-regulation, and all aspects of early child development. It also demonstrates a simple touch/massage technique parents can use to regulate and connect with babies and toddlers.