Updated: Feb 19
By Oran Aviv
Touch is the first sense to develop and plays a crucial role in our emotional well-being. Touch deprivation can cause developmental disorders including cognitive impairment and behavioral problems. Is the amount of touch we give and receive sufficient?
Our Most Important Sense
Have you ever noticed how much the sense of touch is connected to our emotions? For example we ask, “How are you feeling?” and not “How are you seeing?” or “How are you hearing?”
What is interesting is that asking how you feel is also found in other languages besides English:
In Dutch, "Hoe voel je je?" literally means "How do you feel?"
In Portuguese, "Como você está se sentindo?" literally means "How are you feeling?"
In Swedish, "Hur känner du dig?" literally means "How do you feel?"
In Hebrew "?איך אתה מרגיש" literally means “How do you feel?”
Another example is the phrase “I am touched” which means that I am emotionally moved.
Why is the sense of touch connected to our emotions rather than one of our other senses? Perhaps touch may be closely connected to our emotions because it is the first of our senses to develop. In utero, the fetus's sense of touch develops before other senses. Studies have been conducted to understand more about sensory development in the womb. To learn more, read Jamie Morgan, M.D.'s article with the great title, "Womb with a view: Sensory development in utero."
The sense of touch also plays a crucial role in emotional and social development. Touch is essential for survival from the very earliest stages of life, as it allows infants to learn about the world around them and form bonds with their caregivers through physical touch.
Touch is our most important sense, so It is not surprising that we ask "How are you feeling?" as a way to check in on someone's emotional state and show that we care.
Touch Saves Lives
“Premature babies should be given skin to skin contact immediately after birth to improve their survival and health outcomes” Nov. 2022, The World Health Organization (WHO) new guidelines
One of the most amazing examples of the importance of touch, is how this skin to skin procedure for premature infants was developed in 1978 in Bogotá, Colombia.
Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria’s neonatal intensive care unit was so overcrowded, understaffed, and lacking incubators, that there was a 70% mortality rate in the premature infants in his unit. Deaths were mainly from respiratory issues and infections. Dr. Ray searched for a way to help his young patients and thought about how the Joey, the baby kangaroo, lives in its mother’s pouch. He tried to duplicate the kangaroos pouch by having the mothers sit upright and put their premature babies on their bare chests, skin to skin. Amazingly, this touch procedure saved lives. The numbers vary, but most articles say mortality rates were reduced by 50% others say mortality rate was reduced to only 10%. It saved lives and Dr. Rey’s touch procedure became known as “Skin to Skin” or “KMC” Kangaroo Mother Care that is used all over the world today.
Sometimes touch may be just as important as high-tech solutions:
Due to harsh conditions in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s, many children were institutionalized and did not receive proper care and attention. These children were often not held or touched and were left in their cribs for extended periods of time. Sadly, many of these children failed to develop normal social and emotional connections, and experienced delays in physical, cognitive, and language development. Many also experienced developmental disorders including cognitive impairment and behavioral problems.
In his book Touch, The Science of Hand, Heart & Mind, David J. Linden shares that if these children were still young (age 2 or under) and received daily touch therapy, these conditions were reversible
“twenty to sixty minutes per day of gentle massage and limb manipulation was able to mostly reverse the negative consequences of touch deprivation. The babies receiving touch therapy gained weight more quickly; had fewer infections, better sleep, and decreased crying; and progressed more rapidly in developing motor coordination, attention, and cognitive skills.”
Only 30 minutes of daily touch was needed to reverse the conditions of touch-deprived babies in the orphanage! There is no medication or medical technology that can fully replicate these benefits of human touch.
Human touch is an essential component of a child's development and cannot be fully replaced.
Do Children Get Enough Touch?
As a brand-new grandmother this week, I saw first-hand how everyone in the maternity ward wanted to hug the babies. We continue to hug younger children, but as children age, we tend to touch them less.
A participant in a family hand reflexology workshop explained her understanding of the importance of touch when she went home to do her workshop “homework” on her boys:
"I was pretty shy to massage my children's hands, but they totally loved it! It made me realize that as they have grown into boys, I have stopped touching them the way I did when they were babies. Apparently, they have really missed it! … I rub their hands and they pour out the stories of their days that they previously kept to themselves.”
Imagine how much we can improve relationships as well as give emotional support through more touch.
Due to concerns about sexual abuse, children are receiving significantly less touch from adults outside of their immediate family, as teachers and coaches avoid physical contact with them.
Therefore it is important for parents to make sure their children are receiving social touch at home. It's important to keep in mind that touch should be respectful and consensual and children should be taught about personal boundaries and how to communicate them. It’s also important to keep the child's age and developmental stage in mind and adjust the type of touch accordingly.
Here are some ways parents can add more touch to their children's lives:
Physical affection: Show your child love and affection through physical touch, such as hugs, kisses, and holding hands.
Playtime: Engage in physical activities with your child, such as playing sports or roughhousing, to increase the amount of touch.
Massage: Give your child a gentle hand or foot massage, either with lotion or oil.
Cuddle time: Set aside time each day to cuddle with your child and read a book or watch a show together.
Older People Need Touch Too
Are you familiar with individuals who have these conditions?
Compulsive self-soothing rocking motions.
Immune system compromised
Those of you who work in senior facilities, may recognize some of these conditions among older people living with cognitive impairment. but this list of conditions describes infants and young children who were deprived of touch!
I was stunned when I heard a TED Talk with David Linden, the author of “Touch, The Science of Hand, Heart & Mind” describe these conditions of children in Romanian Orphanages who did not receive social touch. I was particularly struck by the compulsive self-rocking behavior that is commonly observed in individuals with dementia who have withdrawn from social interactions.
Unfortunately, older individuals in our society receive very little touch, which may also have a negative impact on their mood, cognitive function and behavior. It is imperative to find ways to incorporate more touch into the lives of older people who are living in care facilities, as it may improve their overall well-being. An easy way to add touch for residents at senior facilities, is by shaking someone’s hand when you greet them. When you take the person’s hand, hold it for a few seconds longer and if possible hold their hand with both of your hands as you say hello and ask them how they are. It takes less than thirty seconds for a person to be affected by your touch.
Be aware that not everyone wants to be touched, so check for body language and other cues that may tell you that this person does not want you to even shake their hand.
Our Touch method, Hands-on Dementia was developed to allow caregivers, staff and/or family members to connect deeper with people who have been diagnosed with dementia. Live-in Caregivers have reported that Hands-on Dementia has helped reduce anxiety, induce better sleep, and improve relations between the caregiver and person living with dementia. Our findings were presented at ADI2022 Conference. Nursing home staff found that Hands-on Dementia may reduce the amount of pain medications some residents take as well as help residents adjust easier to a new facility.
Please contact us below to learn how your staff can include more touch when interacting with residents
or You can learn Hands-on Dementia at your own pace with our eBook and Videos: In summary -
Our sense of touch is our most important sense
Touch connects to our feelings
Lack of touch can be detrimental
Touch can heal
Children may need more touch
Older people are often lacking touch
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Hands-On Dementia For Caregivers
A step by step guide to learn 3 reflex points to help your loved one and yourself. Our ebook includes video clips for self -learning.
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