Touch is the universal expression to show that we care. Touch helps us soothe. It nurtures and helps us thrive even before we are born; after all it is the first sense to develop in-utero.
My strongest memory of how invaluable soothing touch can be to reduce stress, goes hand in hand with one of the most stressful experiences in my life. I was in labor with no time for an epidural. Fortunately the hospital team had an experienced doula on site. The magic of her calming touch was the only reason I was able to cope through such a stressful experience.
Why does touch play such a crucial role in our ability to comfort and seek comfort? The answer lies in understanding the primacy of touch. It is the most mature of all sensory systems for the first several months of our lives. To test whether we instinctively value food or contact for survival, Dr. Harry Harlow conducted an experiment where baby monkeys were deprived of food and contact with a parent for an extended period of time. They were later presented with a choice of a wired dummy carrying a bottle and another dummy covered in a soft cozy cloth. The baby monkeys spent an overwhelming amount of time with the dummy covered in soft cloth, proving that our instinct is to choose contact and comfort above food.
If touch is this crucial to our survival, then you would think that its benefits in early childhood would be similarly accepted and practiced throughout the world. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. In most parts of the world, people massage babies as an age-old practice, however the Western countries are about the only place this is not routine. Dr. Field, an authority in touch research, has instituted massage as a practice to help premature babies to help them gain health faster. Massage stimulates the vagus nerve, that runs from the brain through organs all the way to the abdomen ending at the colon. The increased vagal activity resulting from massage seems to improve weight gain in pre-term babies and is believed to improve overall health in full term babies as well.
Touch is not just important for our physiological health but also for our psychological well-being. Since birth, we learn about the physical world around us through touch. Touch signals safety and comfort. This is how we learn social cues. Researchers believe that when a child is scared, simply reassuring her or him is not enough. Being held physically by someone he trusts is important to calm him. ''We touch each other too little,'' Dr. Field said. ''Body contact is very beneficial between parents and children right up to adolescence.'' Dr. Sandra Weiss, a professor in the department of mental health UCSF, says that through frequent cuddles parents can give their children a positive feeling of themselves, developing their self worth and helping them grow into stronger socio-emotional beings.
Its no rocket science that healthy and happy children will make healthy and happy communities. By hugging our children and conveying love through contact we don’t make them emotionally dependent, instead we give them a sense of safety and self worth. We give them life tools to treat diversity in communities with love, respect and tolerance. When happiness grows, communities thrive and that is most certainly the need of our times.