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Hands-On Parenting in a Pandemic - The Vital Importance of Touch

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

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.

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Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
2021년 1월 07일

Thank you so much, Linda, for sharing all of this research. I definitely need to explore this more. Our kindergarten classroom used to be full of touch -- from kids offering hugs to each other or searching one out from us, to even kids rubbing another child's back to feel better -- and this has changed this year. There are other ways to connect without touching, and we see that all the time in class, but I do wonder if children are seeking out even more touch from parents as a result. You continue to give me a lot to think about. I'd love to share some research and new ideas with our parents.


Aviva

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Thank you for your thoughtful comments Aviva! Thankfully there is a large body of research in the last years that demonstrates how important "affective" touch and maternal touch is to a child's development and to the building and strengthening of relationships first between parents and their children and then all future social relationships. We have a deeply entrenched bias and taboos surrounding touch based on old and unfounded myths (I address this briefly in my video). I refer to it as a cultural dissociative process where we start to close off our thinking about touch which in turn closes off our capacity to think more broadly and take in this new information. It will take time and conscious intenti…


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Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
2021년 1월 05일

Linda, your comment is really making me think. If this is what more parents think/believe, or if this is the message communicated to many, how might we change this message? As an educator, how might I also support a change in message? I'd be curious to hear what others have thought about or tried. Thanks for getting me to think more!


Aviva

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Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
2021년 1월 05일

Thanks for this post, John! It reminded me of a conversation that I had with a parent recently. This mom spoke about her son -- who is one to hug a lot -- and how he seems to be craving even more hugs at home recently. I have to wonder if the difficulty with "touch" at school makes for an increased need at home. I love how this mom supports her son my offering this increased contact, and if she's actually supporting his Self-Reg as well. Have others heard or experienced something similar recently? I would love to hear. Going to check out this video recording as well.


Aviva

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John, Thank you for your kind thoughts about my video and for weaving it so beautifully into your Post. Sadly, we have a long cultural history telling us that "holding babies too much is harmful to children". Like you as a young parent, when I first started doing infant massage at a children's hospital 20+ years ago, I was warned repeatedly by medical professionals that touching and holding the babies too much would "spoil" them. Luckily now, a vast body of research shows that "the opposite is true". Children need lots of nurturing and attuned touch! And, as you write so well, it is vital to their development!

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