We all know there is nothing better than a big hug. However, being touched as babies and children is a biological necessity. This is according to Professor Francis McGlone, of Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent his career researching the effects of touch. Professor McGlone believes that some of the key benefits of touch are:
- It promotes healthy brain development, particularly those parts of the brain which help us to manage social interaction
- It plays a role in reducing both anxiety levels and pain
- It is one way in which we establish a boundary between ourselves and the external world
- It helps us to inhabit our physical body and to feel comfortable in it
(If you are interested in finding out more about Professor McGlone’s work, you can listen to him being interviewed by Dr Rangan Chatterjee on the Feel Better Live More podcast)
What exactly does touch do?
From a scientific perspective, touch activates specific nerve fibres on the skin (called CT afferents) which stimulate different parts of the brain. Research has shown that pleasant, nurturing touch (such as skin-to-skin contact between a baby and mother) can stimulate the brain, whilst unpleasant touch (such as certain medical procedures) reduces brain activity.
A different perspective on touch
In Chinese medicine, the skin and touch are related to the Metal Element. If you are not familiar with the Metal Element, you might find it helpful to read about it here before reading on.
Skin is the part of us that meets the outside world
Chinese medicine can help us to understand touch in a different way. The Metal Element houses the Lungs (by which we mean the energetic function of the Lungs from a Chinese medicine perspective). One of the functions of the Lungs is to send what we call defensive qi to the surface of the body. The skin, nourished by this defensive qi, forms a boundary between a child’s internal body and the external environment. In health, this boundary will be sufficiently open to allow a child to feel connected to and affected by their external environment. However, at the same time, it will be sufficiently closed to keep out what we would not want to allow in. This may be pathogens such as cold viruses but also less tangible aspects of life, such as intense emotional atmospheres.
For example, a child with insufficient defensive qi on the surface of the body may succumb to more than his fair share of coughs and colds. Or there may be a more emotional manifestation. He may feel especially vulnerable to criticism. The harsh words of a ragged parent at bedtime might feel as if they penetrate right to the core of his being. His degree of upset might, to the parent, feel exaggerated in response to the trigger.
Another child might manifest an imbalance of defensive qi at the other end of the spectrum. He may be especially closed off, be hard to make contact with and may appear unmoved by events in his life that we might expect would induce particular emotion. For the child, to be in this state may feel isolating.
The right kind of touch (suggestions of which are below) can help to regulate the amount of defensive qi at the surface of the body. It can promote balance so that a child is adequately, but not overly, protected from outside influences.
Skin and the nervous system
When a child feels under stress, the body will respond by readying itself for battle. From a Chinese medicine perspective, one way of doing this is by sending its resources (in this case, defensive qi) to the surface of the body. This is akin to sending troops to the front in preparation to defend against potential attackers. This is a useful response when there really is a threat. However, to live in a constant state of ‘red-alert’ is not health-giving. It means that too many of the body’s resources are employed in defending itself from attack and there is less available to fuel our internal processes, growth and development. What’s more, it is simply tiring to be in this state for any length of time.
The right kind of touch can help to ‘de-stress’ a child by signalling that a threat is no longer present. This will help them to achieve a more relaxed state.
Touch helps us to feel ‘at home’ in our bodies
Another interesting aspect of Professor McGlone’s work is his finding that touch can help us to feel embodied and generate a sense of feeling comfortable in and connected with our bodies. This idea very much overlaps with the Chinese medicine concept of the po, which is related to the Metal Element and is often translated as ‘the corporeal soul’. When the po is well regulated, a child will be at ease in his body and have an awareness of bodily sensations. It will make him less likely to somatise emotions, which might then manifest as pain or other bodily symptoms.
What is the right kind of touch?
As with everything, parents should always respond to the unique nature of their child. For some children, lots of cuddles all the time feels overwhelming or even violating. For others, there is no such thing as too many cuddles! Bearing this in mind, the following are suggestions of ways in which parents might bring more nurturing touch into their relationships with their children.
Skin to skin contact
Babies, particularly premature babies, benefit enormously from skin-to-skin contact with their mother in the hours and weeks after birth. This has been shown to reduce mortality, severe illness, infection and the length of hospital stays. Professor McGlone’s work suggests that it may also help to promote emotional regulation.
Using slings instead of buggies
Carrying babies and toddlers in slings means we are more likely to stroke their heads, hands or feet.
Next time you think about giving your baby a little massage, remember that it may help him to regulate his emotions as he grows, feel ‘at home’ in his body and lower his stress levels!
Simply incorporating as much spontaneous, loving touch as feels right whenever we are with our children is beneficial. Just a comforting pat on the shoulder or back can have a beneficial impact.
Therapeutic touch is not limited to human touch. There is an increasing amount of evidence that stroking and cuddling animals has a stress-reducing and calming effect. This can be most clearly seen in children who are on the autistic spectrum, whose lives can literally be transformed by the presence of a support dog. However, any child will benefit from contact with cuddly animals!
And finally, of course, lots of cuddles
We know that cuddles help us to connect with our children, but next time your child asks for a cuddle, you can also remember of the other myriad benefits it can bring them – and you!