Occupational therapist, Tamaryn Hunter, explains why our sense of touch is so important, how to stimulate your child’s tactile system and what can go wrong.
Why is our sense of touch so important?
- The tactile system (or sense of touch) is one of the earliest to develop; it’s also the largest sensory system. It includes various receptors that allow us to feel light touch, deep pressure, texture, pain and temperature.
- Its main function early in life is a protective one. It allows infants to feel pain or discomfort like a wet nappy. It also guides your little one in feeding, as he uses his sense of touch to locate your nipple. The ability to process touch sensation within the mouth helps with sucking and later with chewing and swallowing solid food.
- Since an infant’s tactile system develops before his visual and auditory systems are well developed, touch is the way he initially makes sense of the world around him. This starts with putting everything in his mouth in order to understand objects’ properties like size, shape and texture. Later on, his hands begin to process tactile input in a more mature manner. Hereafter, he starts to develop gross and fine motor skills.
- In early life, touch also plays a significant role in bonding and emotional development. It’s important for a newborn to experience physical closeness with his mother or caregiver, so that he learns to form a primary attachment. According to counselling psychologist, Ruth Webster Fisher, the most securely attached babies have mothers who respond to their signals of discomfort by picking them up and holding them close.
- Bonding also makes an infant aware of his body. He later becomes aware of his physical boundaries, also known as his ‘body scheme’. This ‘boundary’ that the skin provides, helps him feel secure.
Developmental stages – Sense of touch
What can go wrong?
Babies crave touch as a way to bond with their primary caregivers. They’ll start to cry when they’re removed from this touch. If an infant’s first attachment’s incomplete, it will be harder for him to form secure attachments later in life. The infant’s likely to grow up to be less emotionally secure.
Children whose tactile systems don’t process information accurately tend to become over-sensitive to touch sensations (tactile defensiveness), or they can be under-sensitive to touch and battle to make sense of tactile information.
These children tend to be clumsy and have a poor spatial awareness. They fall over objects (sometimes even their own feet) or bump into doorframes and furniture. They have trouble developing appropriate motor skills and tend to be clumsy with tool handling like holding a pencil, using a knife and fork, or tying their shoelaces.
Tactile defensiveness is the tendency to react negatively and emotionally to touch sensations that other people may hardly feel or notice. It’s due to poor processing of this type of sensation. The brain’s over-sensitive to touch and views many typical touch sensations as harmful. This results in the flight-fright-fight response.
Your child might be tactile sensitive if he dislikes:
- having his face or hair washed
- having his teeth cleaned and resists tooth-brushing
- having his hair, fingernails or toenails cut
- being touched and pulls away from hugs and cuddles
- wearing certain types of clothing
- putting his hands in sand, paint or play-dough
- going barefoot – especially on sand or grass.
- temperature changes or the texture of certain food.
If your child has more than two or three of these signs, consult an occupational therapist that’s trained in sensory integration to do an assessment.
Tips on stimulating the tactile system:
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