Touchy not feely
14:18 (GMT+2), Tue, 23 March 2010
Learning is the ability to receive information from the senses and to respond through muscle reaction. The ability to learn equips your baby with information and skills he needs to survive and interact with his environment. Therefore, babies need to gain as much sensory experience as possible to learn to manipulate their own bodies and to perform the daily tasks of living. In a baby or child, touch aversion means that he reacts negatively to being in touch with specific textures and/or to being touched by others.
Learning and the senses Elrie Maree, an occupational therapist in Port Elizabeth, explains that learning starts at conception. “Often, even before the mother knows she is pregnant, the foetus’ nervous system has already developed. This happens around six weeks after conception.” The foetus’s skin and nervous system develop from the outermost of the three cell layers of the embryo, called the ectoderm. This outermost layer also gives rise to the hair, teeth and the sense of smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch, providing your baby with information about what goes on outside the body. In her book, Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu states the skin can be regarded as an exposed portion of the nervous system and that touch is the primary sense that helps us to survive.
“A human can spend his life blind and deaf and completely lacking the sense of taste and smell, but he can’t survive at all without the functions performed by the skin. Touch is the ‘parent’ of hearing and seeing.” Experts also say the feedback from the skin to the brain is ongoing, even while we are asleep. The skin and central nervous system are closely connected – when we stimulate the skin, we can wake up or calm down the central nervous system. “Early development of a baby’s nervous system depends a lot on the kind of tactile stimulation he receives. His skin is his primary sense organ and tactile stimulation is absolutely critical if he is to grow and develop,” says Maree. Montagu says that, although a baby has no one to teach him about touch or his other senses in utero, his central nervous system works so he can receive information through the senses and can respond with the necessary muscle reactions.
Touch and babies
“It’s important to understand how the sense of touch works,” says Maree. According to A. Jean Ayres in her book, Sensory Integration and the Child, there are two types of touch receptors in the skin. These are the protective receptors, which initially make us withdraw from any touch to alert to danger and defend us from further danger. Once the brain has been alerted, however, the system is less active so that the discriminatory receptors can take over. These tell us whether the touch is deep or light, rough or smooth, hot or cold, painful or pleasurable. A baby’s first reaction to touch will always be to withdraw – it has been found that at six weeks in utero, the foetus will withdraw to protect and defend itself. “This incredibly sensitive and protective touch system alerts us to any threat to our bodies,” explains Maree. And it’s the areas of the mouth, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet that are the first areas that are sensitive to touch, and only later does this sensitivity spread to the rest of the body.
“This is a survival reflex that is vital for our existence,” she says. “It’s amazing – when a woman realises that she’s pregnant, she instinctively touches her tummy and this tells her baby that he is welcome. That’s when the baby learns for the first time that touch is pleasant and he won’t withdraw from it. Instead, he moves towards the touch of his mother’s loving hand on her tummy.”
How does touch aversion develop?
Millions of tiny hairs and receptors around each hair follicle send messages to the brain to alert your baby to any change in his environment. Initially, your baby’s protective system will interpret everything as dangerous, until the discriminatory system matures enough to decide whether the information is threatening or pleasant. As the ability of the skin is to discriminate between danger and pleasure, the defensive system – the withdrawal from touch – is more integrated into your baby’s sensory system. Maree says that if the protective system continues to interpret touch as a danger, your child becomes tactile defensive.
With this disorder, the brain tends to interpret all touch as being dangerous, so a child might react aggressively or defensively because he is trying to control his ‘scary’ world. In this state, the child is existing in a state of ‘chronic survival’, which decreases his ability to take in new information, to remember experiences, and inevitably this affects your baby’s or child’s capacity to learn. For all babies and children, the sense and emotional feeling of ‘I am okay’ and ‘I belong’ help him to develop socially, his gross and fine motor abilities will increase and he will be open to explore and connect with his world to become more creative and learn lots of new information.
Touch gives us essential information for body awareness, motor planning, visual perception, language, academic learning, social skills and emotional security. Maree adds: “It’s so important that a baby learns that touch is pleasurable and affirming so he can ‘feel’ the boundaries of his own body – and how to use his body as a point of reference to reach out to objects and people around him. Sally Goddard and Montagu state that research shows that babies who are touched have stronger immune systems, gain weight better and have lower levels of stress hormones.
We instinctively touch someone who is in emotional or physical pain and we respond this way because of our experience as babies. The majority of babies are cuddled and caressed whenever they are awake, a basic and necessary source of emotional and physical nourishment. It makes them feel loved, secure and helps to develop a positive self-image. Carol Stock Kranowitz explains that the tactile system plays a very important role in determining human behaviour – our emotions and our physical and mental actions and reactions. Every one of us, she says, must get tactile stimulation to ‘keep us organised, functioning and healthy’.
What are the symptoms of touch aversion?
There are three ways in which this disorder can manifest. “Your child may be oversensitive, under-responsive to touch or he may have poor tactile discrimination,” says Stock Kranowitz in The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun.
• An otherwise healthy baby who cries for more than three hours a day for three days per week
• Wants only to be held upright when you pick him up and only Mom can pick him up and handle him
• Doesn’t like to be swaddled
• Rejects cuddling and is stiff in your arms
• Doesn’t show any desire to crawl, sit or move around Tactile defensiveness, also known as ‘touch aversion’, is one of several sensory disorders; the umbrella term is ‘sensory defensiveness’ and refers to problems with the way in which babies and children receive and process stimuli – the malfunctioning of the way in which we receive sensory information, from both internal and external sources, and automatically integrate these sensations. This is known as ‘sensory integration’. This process allows us to channel the stimuli into their appropriate areas in the brain, so that we can respond to them in appropriate ways.
Sensory disorders can affect vision, hearing, taste, smell, as well as the proprioceptive (nerve endings in the joints and muscles that provide a sense of the body’s position) and vestibular senses of touch and balance which provide us with necessary information about our bodies and our environment. What parents must know is that problems related to sensory input affect how babies and small children get the ‘food’ their brains require to learn about themselves and the world around them. This type of problem can also affect a baby’s ability to function in socially appropriate ways.
• Is specific about which textures he will have on his skin
• Wants to sleep uncovered
• Has severe problems sleeping
• Development is either too fast (walking at 7 or 8 months) or too slow (does not attempt to crawl)
• Fussy about temperature – of his bath and food
• Has mood swings
• Does not want to take a dummy or bottle
• Refuses solid food or specific foods
In toddlers and preschoolers
• Responds negatively to touch and shows anxiety, hostility or aggression as a response. He may withdraw, scratching or rubbing the place that has been touched
• Wants to touch everything he sees
• He hates surprises
• Dislikes having his hair cut, going to the dentist or doctor
• May rub his own skin excessively
• May over-respond to physical experiences, for example, to trimming fingernails, minor scratches or injuries. Cutting or washing his hair can be threatening to him
• Stubborn, rigid, bossy, fuzzy, just ‘difficult’ or throws tantrums
• R esists brushing his teeth or washing his face
• Is a picky eater or can cram his mouth full of food
• F ood sensitivities
• A messy eater
• Dislikes socks, turtlenecks, collars, waistbands, or the wash-care labels inside garments
• Has poor temperature control. Will prefer to wear boots on hot days or short sleeves on cold days
• Avoids messy play or can be unaware of sand in his hair or a runny nose
• Poor body awareness. Doesn’t know his own boundaries and can get too close to other people. Also can have less awareness of pain
• Doesn’t respond well to new situations or stress. Can be easily overwhelmed
• Poor visual discrimination, poor handwriting and poor concentration
• Can act as the ‘class clown’ Be aware, however, that if your child seems to have a few of these characteristics, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has tactile defensiveness.
Dealing with tactile defensiveness in your child
Stock Kranowitz says, first of all, that you must have fun with your child. She feels it’s as important to develop a sense of humour as it is to develop a sense of touch. It’s very important of course to also acknowledge and respect his fears as real. Your child must experience a sense of safety. “Have structure and routine and enjoy special rituals with your child,” advises Maree, “and encourage slow, even breathing, especially when facing something that is fearful to him.” She also advises parents to avoid surprises and to rather prepare their child for new situations or new activities.
Tips and tricks to help a tactiledefensive child
• Use firm pressure when you touch your child.
• Allow your child to experience new food or textures in his own time. For example, let him first touch and feel new food textures with his hands before eating them. Finger foods are a good idea.
• Make your child aware of his own body by tracing the outline with your hand.
• Massage your baby or child.
• Avoid too many sensory activities that can overload his system.
• Get involved with your child’s experimenting with different textures – have fun getting your hands dirty together.
• Allow him to fiddle with a stone, a stress ball or press-stick when he has to focus on his work. Parents must realise they can help a child with the problem of tactile defensiveness. And Michelle Morris, in her article ‘Sensory defensiveness’ recommends that the whole family gets involved with playing to help a child to overcome it. Maree says, “Tactile defensiveness is a loud SOS to parents. In this plea for help, a child is asking for firm tactile stimulation so he feels safe and relaxed in order that he feels free to learn, create and love.”
|Tactile defensiveness, also known as ‘touch aversion’, is one of several sensory
disorders; the umbrella term is ‘sensory defensiveness’ and refers to problems with the way in which babies and children receive and process stimuli – the malfunctioningof the way in which we receive sensory information, from both internal andexternal sources, and automatically integrate these sensations. This is known as ‘sensory integration’. This process allows us to channel the stimuli into their appropriate areas in the brain, so that we can respond to them in appropriate ways.
Sensory disorders can affect vision, hearing, taste, smell, as well as the proprioceptive(nerve endings in the joints and muscles that provide a sense of the body’s position) and vestibular senses of touch and balance which provide us with necessary information about our bodies and our environment. What parents must know is that problems related to sensory input affect how babies and small children get the ‘food’ their brains require to learn about themselves and the world around them. This type of problem can also affect a baby’s ability to function in socially appropriate ways.
|Here are a few suggested activities from Stock Kranowitz’s The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun:
For the developmental age range 2 and up
• Children can play with shaving cream, bath foam, damp sand or mud on a tray –‘smooshing’ it around, drawing or writing in it or making lazy 8s (a Braingym idea).
• Children benefit from ‘sifting fingers and wiggling toes in different foodstuffs’. You can use beans, lentils, rice, oats, pasta, popcorn or nuts.
For the developmental age range 3 and up
• This is great if it’s too wet or too cold to go outside. Get your child to walk along a homemade ‘tactile road’ made of carpet squares, fake fur, terrycloth towels, large sheets of bubble wrap, corrugated cardboard or sandpaper