The importance of touch

Posted on January 17th, 2014

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

  • The tactile system starts to develop in the uterus and functions well from birth.
  • One month: Touch sensations are important for feeding and reflexes. For example, when you touch your baby’s cheek he’ll respond by turning his head.
  • Three months: He starts to reach for objects and holds on as part of the automatic grasp reflex and as a reaction to the sensation of touch in the palm of his hand.
  • Four to six months: He starts to touch and look his at hands. He also starts to use his thumbs and forefingers. Concerns should be raised if your child isn’t grasping items, touching his hands and bringing toys together with his two hands.
  • Six months to two years: He starts to become more accurate when reaching and grasping, as he starts using his hands and eyes simultaneously.
  • Two years: Your child can tell where he’s touched on his body and can direct responses more voluntarily. Concerns should be raised if your child’s fumbling, dropping items regularly, has difficulty playing with toys and learning new skills.
  • Three to seven years: Your child starts to use, and gain better control of, simple tools like paper, crayons and scissors,. He’ll also start to do up zips and buckles. Concerns should be raised if your child’s battling to learn skills like doing buttons and zips, tying shoelaces, using eating utensils, holding a pencil correctly, as well as using scissors and a ruler.
  • Eight years: The tactile system’s basically fully mature. Your child can manipulate objects with good control and accuracy.

What can go wrong?

Emotional development
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.

Physical development
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.

Under-sensitivity
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:
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:

  • Give baby lots of touch input – swaddling with a blanket, cuddles, kisses, tickles and massages.
  • Let your toddler crawl over different textures – grass, sand, carpets, floors, cushions and blankets.
  • Let him play outside without his clothes and shoes, so that he can feel different textures on their skins.
  • Engage in creative tactile tasks like finger-painting, paper maché, using glue, playing with glitter, modelling with clay or dough or using tissue paper.
  • Hide objects that he must dig out of bowls of jelly, rice, pasta, sand or shaving cream.
  • Allow your child to help with baking and cooking like kneading bread dough or handling soggy spaghetti.
  • Play dress-up games so your child can feel different textures of clothes on their skin, clips in their hair and jewellery.
  • Most importantly, allow your child to get dirty and messy and to enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from exploring new sensations of touch, texture and temperature. This will allow your child’s sensory system to learn how to process this information in a way that’s healthy and optimises his response to touch.
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