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Touch
First Years Feb 5, 2020
6 Minutes

Positive touch: a simple way to boost brain and immune development…

Can hugs and positive touch really help build brain and immune development??! Does this mean its impossible to ‘spoil’ a baby with too many cuddles? We take a look at the science and what you need to know (don’t worry we’re not about to give you a ‘how to: hug’ we trust your technique!)

So, how does it actually work?  

We try to stay well away from the ‘parenting’ space as frankly who knows with that (!) However, we are interested in anything that relates to the development of the brain and the immune system. Particularly when the science suggests that there are positive things that we as parents (or parents to be) can do about it.  

In this case we look at the power of positive touch for building healthy brains and immunity: 

We know that the earliest days are the greatest opportunity for positive foundations to be laid. The brain and immune system in particular are well off full development when a baby is born. Did you know that a baby’s brain is only ¼ of it’s adult size at birth? (lucky really as it’s big enough when it comes out!) 

Both brains and immune systems are highly malleable in the first few years. The positive: there are lots of good things we can do to help them along. 

So, how does touch really make such a difference? 

We have all probably heard the research about what happens in extreme cases. Specifically certain Eastern European Orphanages where children are deprived of a considerable amount of sensory stimulation and are largely left alone. The impact on both cognitive and brain development are marked and not in a good way (1). 

The flip side – lots of positive gentle touch – has been shown (in everything from worms to rats to people) to be beneficial when it comes to both brain and immune. We have also seen this with premature babies which is why we have seen a rise in things like Kangaroo Care (2) where there is skin to skin. We have also seen evidence that the more the parent’s are able to have some presence alongside NICU staff the better it helps the baby along. Click here for more. 

The effects also appear to be pretty persistent. One study showed 20 minutes of tactile stimulation per day for 10 weeks led to higher scores in developmental assessments. (1) 

What actually causes this? 

The science behind this is pretty interesting and it comes back to our friend Epigenetics (remember this is where our environment impacts how our genes are expressed – click here for more). 

Research has shown that things like licking and grooming (rats) and gentle touch can affect how our genes express themselves particularly relating to the body’s stress response centre: the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Axis (HPA). (1, 3, 4). 

In a nutshell without getting too into the nitty gritty research appears to show that the more gentle touch (or licking/grooming if you’re a rat or that way inclined!) does a couple of things:

ONE: it seems to impact on the gene level. Leading to more receptors for our all important stress hormones. More receptors = a greater ability for our bodies to regulate our hormonal response. Particularly when it comes to stress hormones. These are called Glucocorticoid Receptors (in case you were wondering….ok, just me then!) (1, 4)

Secondly, gentle touch releases a hormone (amongst others) called Oxytocin. This is good for growth overall but also for nerve growth factor (IGF-1). This also protects against inflammation. Particularly the sort we don’t want: Chronic Inflammation – click here for more. 

Why we want to avoid chronic inflammation and how touch can help us here: 

In a nutshell, inflammation is the body’s natural response to attack and it keeps us alive. Hooray! The trouble comes when our body’s defence systems are always ‘on’ at a low level. This is essentially the immune system firing when it shouldn’t. This is also known as chronic inflammation and has been linked to all sorts of negative things. One of the causes of this has been found to be cold, unresponsive parents with harsh discipline and routine exposure to conflict. (5) Translation: not a lot of safe positive touch.

We know once again from children subject to mistreatment that they tend to be subject to many more infections. (1)

Recent research has also linked this to development of anxiety and depression. Click here for more on this fascinating subject.  

The positive here is that research has shown oxytocin to be effective in fighting chronic inflammation. Another tool in the amour. Click here for more ways. 

This is not just for young babies: it has shown real benefits when it comes to brain development and toddler melt-downs: 

We recently did a piece looking at the science behind a tantrum and using this, what is the best way to deal with it. Click here for more. In brief we know that a toddler does not have the level of emotional development to process more extreme emotions. Tantrums actually help this development. When we look at the science behind what goes on during a tantrum, what seems to work best to help development on is positive safe touch once again.

This doesn’t of course mean you have to walk around hugging your child! 

Hugs are great but they don’t have to be 24/7. As always it is about being moderate and actually more than that, responsive. Without wanting to stray into parenting (which we are sort of with this one!) we will instead point to Sue Gerhardt’s amazing book ‘Why Love Matters’. Sue is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and argues that the key with most things to do with babies is to be responsive to their needs and wants. So when they are looking for physical touch and affection thats great. However, it should be when they’re open for it. Doesn’t mean 100% of the time. It’s really being sensitive to your baby’s cues.

Most of the studies that showed positive effects actually looked

Bottom line: 

This is by no means revolutionary. As adults it’s nice to get a hug (at an appropriate time from someone we want to hug us of course!) and massage therapy has shown positive results for a whole range of things. We have no doubt that if you’re busy reading about your baby’s health you’re going to be very keen on cuddling that baby too. This is just an extra positive to think about when you’re giving your next cuddle!

References: 

1) Ardiel E, Rankin C: The importance of touch in development: Pediatrics & Child Health: 2010 March 15(3): 153-156

2) Feldman R, Eidelman A: Skin-to-Skin contact accelerates autonomic and neurobehavioural maturation in preterm infants: Developmental Medicine and Child Neurobiology: 

3) Karol KM, Moulder RG, Lillind TS: Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement: American Association of the Advancement of Science: 2019 Oct 16:5

4) Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt

5) Miller G, Chen E, Parker K: Psychological Stress in Childhood and Susceptibility to the Chronic Diseases of Aging: Psychological Bulletin: 2011 Nov 137(6): 959-997

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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.

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