The Science Of Touch

The Science Of Touch

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During the first year of life infants use their senses to focus attention and learn what is meaningful in their environment. Whether it is the sound of a voice saying their name or outreached arms when they near, multisensory input provides infants with the building blocks needed to form emotional attachments, learn language, and to navigate the world.

 

The Science Of Touch

The science behind the role of the visual and auditory systems in early learning and cognition has far outpaced our knowledge of the role of the somatosensory system – or touch – for infant development. Although touch is the first sense to develop in the womb and seems straightforward when we think of babies – cuddling, kissing, holding – it can be measured in many ways (e.g., pressure, temperature, pain, movement) and can be positive or negative (e.g., a hug or a spank).

Recent evidence, however, suggests that touch is an important predictor of early neurodevelopment in premature babies, later executive function in school-age children, and even word learning in four-month-olds. One of the most studied forms of touch that shows short- and long-term benefits for child development is holding and skin-to-skin contact between parents and premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis measured the short-term effects of parent holding and parent-infant skin-to-skin contact on neurobehavior of premature babies. Infants who were held often had higher quality body movements with fewer startles and tremors, showed less stress and excitability, were less fussy and irritable when held, and were more easily soothed than infants held less often.

An intervention study out of Israel measured the long-term benefits of maternal touch in the NICU and several developmental outcomes. The intervention, called Kangaroo Care (KC), involved placing the baby between the mother’s breasts while still attached to the cardiorespiratory monitor, one hour per day for 14 days. The safety and benefit of this intervention to neuromaturation during the neonatal period and mother-infant bonding in early infancy is well supported. The researchers compared children who did participate in Kangaroo Care as a premature baby to a control group of children who did not.

The results showed that at 10 years of age, children in the KC group as babies showed better executive functioning skills (working memory, mental flexibility, self-regulation skills), were less reactivate to stressors, were better sleepers, and showed more reciprocal interactions with their mothers compared to children in the control group. One final study recently published at Purdue University showed the importance of touch for word learning. Researchers had typically developing 4-month-old babies listen to a continuous stream of nonsense syllables (e.g., “pokutanedokulepogadonemu”) while sitting on their mothers’ laps. Each time the italicized set of syllables was presented (e.g., “lepoga”), the experimenter touched the infants’ knee (this occurred 24 times) but never touched the baby during other syllables. When the babies were later tested on their recognition of these syllables, they were more likely to recognize the syllable that co-occurred with touch than syllables without touch. The researchers hypothesized that babies pay special attention to touch, and when it is paired with sound, this focused attention may help babies find specific “words” in a long stream of continuous speech. This may also help explain why babies learn body part words earlier than other types of words (“here’s your nose!”). Human beings are social animals and touch is an inseparable part of our everyday life; we hug at hello and goodbye, we smooch chubby cheeks, we wipe away tears, we even wear our babies. What is fascinating is the impact of such effortless, embedded, day-to-day behavior on human development. Experience matters.
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Jessica Beer PHd
Jessica Beer PHd

Co-Founder & Owner of The Urban Chalkboard
Developmental Scientist with a love for early learning and developing concepts that help little learners flourish and thrive

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