What first comes to mind when you think of touch?
- As a mother?
- Memories as a kid?
- Positive or negative emotions or experiences?
It is such a pervasive input system that it is easily overlooked, but touch is important. I’m sure you’ve seen posts or studies about how when babies are not held, they don’t thrive. Preemies and infants deprived of touch can die, even if given the appropriate medications and food. When premature infants are given three 15-minute massages a day, they gain weight better and show better health measures all around. Something so simple, but obviously important for our health and survival. What’s up?
Touch is a critical element for the developing nervous system. It both connects and discriminates between our inner and our outer worlds. It teaches our body and our brain about the world around us and helps build our sense of self. Our skin and our brain are actually generated from a single ectodermic germ layer. When two systems are derived from the same germ layer, there are intricate connections that last through life.
It is the vestibular system that is first to fully myelinate, but it is the sense of touch which provides our first source of contact with the outer world. At 5 weeks post-conception, we have an active withdrawal reflex. Interesting to note that the earliest realization of touch is a defensive response characterized by withdrawal. But that is not where it should stay! If either withdrawal or grasp reflexes remain prevalent beyond their allotted time, they will disrupt the delicate balance between the protective and discriminative tactile systems, as well as the normal developmental progression. We should evolve from a primitive withdrawal response to a very complex interplay of inputs and responses. By the time baby is born, the sense of touch should be associated with security, feeding, comfort, and eventually exploration. Touch even precedes both hearing and vision as the initial primary channel of learning.
There are touch receptors all over the entire body. These millions of receptors are divided into 2 categories: protective and discriminative. They both feed into a large area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex.
If you want to know how your brain views your body based on sensory input, check out the depiction represented by this Homunculus.
With such an intricate infrastructure built to respond to tactile input and with a substantial portion of our cortex devoted to interpreting our body image, it’s no wonder that disruption within this system impacts every fibre of our being. Lack of physical contact and a sensory-devoid diet have lasting implications in self-development and in health. Deficient social connection has an effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Solitary elderly people are almost 50% more likely to die early than those who have family, friends, or community. We can consider the implications of touch deficiency in sickness/health, poverty, ageing/longevity, sport/physical activity, social interactions, sexual exploits, and even manual therapy.
And those are just the negative implications of a LACK of touch. We haven’t even ventured into the detrimental impact of violence and inappropriate touch, especially during critical developmental ages. This trauma has heart-wrenching impacts beyond physical trauma. Given our neuroplastic brain’s ability to adapt and remap among multiple pathways, we see very complex compensation patterns in children who have endured physical pain or inappropriate touch. That’s a whole other dark rabbit hole to go down, but if you want to learn more, I’d suggest reading the very fascinating and brilliant book The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. (It's not a dark book, by any means, but the implications in this particular field are justly concerning.)
Anyway, back to our line of thought. Consider monotonous tactile stimuli. Everything always smooth and soft. Life in the back of a Cadillac. It can be soothing but can also dull the senses or create a hypersensitivity to other forms of stimuli. We need a variety of textures in our tactile diet, just as we do in our food choices. (We can also talk about the importance of tactile education in food introductions, considering the mouth is the primary vehicle of our early tactile exploration!)
Tactile discrimination should provide us with an enormous amount of information about our environment. Especially early in life, it is associated with healthy growth, better immune function, and a reduction in stress hormones. Touch is also important for a child to develop their body image. Growing up coincides with a reduction in the range and quality of our tactile life. The biggest deficiency is seen in 8-16 year-olds. Considering this is a critical time in developing our identity and sense of self, it is so important to continue physical connection and exploration. I shudder the think of the growing trend of isolation in our young people, with physical relationships and experiences being replaced with virtual. There’s another tangent for another day and a great opportunity as a way to enrich our young people's lives.
OK, enough problem focus. What can we do to encourage the best tactile environment for our children (and ourselves) to ensure optimum sensory development?
- Physical Birth - Our birth experience is a formative tactile experience. Whether vaginal or section delivery, this is an opportunity to imprint positive touch association.
- Skin-to-skin Contact - Important for microbial and tactile "seeding". Increases positive association with touch due to the flood of love hormones that surge with physical contact and with nursing.
- Lots of touch, massage, kisses, cuddles, etc.
- Baby wearing.
- Baths - Water is a great way to transition a touch-sensitive infant into a less withdrawal-based response.
- Food Introductions - Oral tactile development and learning lead the way. Include a variety of textures and don't be afraid to get messy!
- Hold hands
- Explore nature / Get dirty
- Physical play
- Dance (especially group-based folk dance)
- Keep snuggling
- Follow their lead!
- Take your shoes off.
- Hugs & kisses (for kids and significant others).
- Instil more intention in your social interactions like handshakes and friendly touches.
- Manual care like chiro and massage.
I LOVE the perspective of thinking of our kids as restorative. What a refreshing approach compared to how draining they can be! Let's follow their lead and let them pull us into a more enriched tactile experience of the world around us.
If reading through this blog or through other reading you think you or your children may have some imbalance in your tactile sensory processing, it is important to seek out a qualified practitioner to guide you along the rehabilitation process. That may be an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or chiropractor, depending on their individual training. Treating dysfunctions/imbalances within the sensory system at any age (but especially before initial school experience) will literally change your life and the way you experience the world around you.
Unsure? A good initial screener test is the Tandem Heal-Toe Walk. Can your child walk heel-to-toe in a straight line (as if on a balance beam) without looking down at their feet?
Here are a few more signs of imbalances within this division of the sensory system:
Overactive Protective Receptors limit capacity to develop good tactile discrimination. This will usually present with an auto-withdrawal response. These children will struggle with both receiving physical affection.
A child who lacks sufficient Protective Control will be a “thick-skinned” daredevil with no sense of danger, be oblivious to injury (of self or others), and will likely be unable to read body language.
- Dislikes being touched, but may be a compulsive “toucher”
- Allergic skin reactions
- Poor temperature control
- Low external pain threshold
- Poor body image (possibly even anorexia)
- Dislike of sports
- Tendency to rely on sensory instead of verbal language.
- High pain threshold
- Craving contact sports
- Runs into walls and bangs into furniture, repeatedly
- Provokes roughhousing or fighting
- Compulsive touching
- "Bull in a china shop"
Tactile-Associated Primitive Reflexes
To be checked by a neurodevelopmentally trained OT, PT, DC, or MD.
Our conversation starter for this Pathways Connect Kelowna gathering was the article Touch as Nutrition in Pathways to Family Wellness Magazine Issue #47. It was a great followup to last month's talk on Risky Play.
I added a lot of the neurodevelopmental perspective because it is the lens through which I see most of the world. If you want to learn more about that realm, I would suggest checking out the book Reflexes, Learning, and Behaviour by Sally Goddard.
I also have a couple old blogs up to support a more practical sensory play experience at home.