Each month, Dr. Levy answers a common question he has received from professionals, caregivers and parents during three decades of pioneering work on attachment theory, treatment and training.
All warm-blooded animals are born with an innate need to be touched and stroked affectionately. There is extensive research going back decades that shows how critical touch is to the survival of both animals and humans. A 1976 study, linked the handling or gentle touching of mammals early in life to increased weight gain, activity, and resilience under stress (Simon 1976).
Touch for a human baby serves both physical and emotional functions. Human babies actually die when there is a lack of touch. In the nineteenth century, most institutionalized infants in the United States died of marasmus (“wasting away”). Institutions surveyed in 1915, reported that a majority of infants under the age of 2 had died due to failure to thrive, related to the lack of touch and affection (Chapin 1915; cited in Montagu 1986, p. 97). Prescott (1971) found that deprivation of touch and movement contributed to later emotional problems. He also found that in cultures where physical affection toward infants is high there are low levels of adult aggression, but in cultures where there is less affectionate touch, there are increased incidents of adult aggression.
Recent attachment research on contact comfort between mother and infant revealed interesting but not surprising findings. Mothers were given either a soft baby carrier to hold their infant or a plastic infant seat to use on a daily basis. At 3 1/2 months of age, the soft carrier infants looked more frequently at their mothers and cried less; these mothers were more responsive to their babies’ vocalizations. At 13 months, these infants were more likely to be securely attached (83%) compared with the infant seat group (30%) (Anisfield et al. 1990).
Touch is an essential means of communication between baby and caregiver, affecting emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development (Anderson 2008). A mother’s touch reduces pain when infants are given a blood test, and massage helps preemies sleep better, grow faster, be less irritable, and leave the hospital sooner. Warm and caring touch lowers stress hormones (e.g., cortisol), and stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which enhances security, trust, and secure attachment (Field 2010).
Humans are prewired to be able to interpret the touch of others. Studies have shown that people have an innate ability to decode emotions with touch alone. Hundreds of participants, between the ages of 18 and 36, were able to communicate 8 distinct emotions via touch – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy – with accuracy rates as high as 78% (Herenstein et al. 2009). Touch seems to be a more nuanced and effective means of communicating emotions than even facial expressions or tone of voice. Touch promotes more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connections with others. Recent studies have found that people buy more if they are gently touched by a store greeter, strangers are more likely to provide help if touch accompanies the request, and waitresses receive bigger tips when they briefly touch customers. Most of the people in these studies did not remember being touched, but when asked they reported they liked the person and felt some positive connection (Guerrero 2007). Touch-oriented doctors, teachers, and managers consistently receive higher ratings. They communicate warmth, caring, and support (Anderson 2008). (Of course, context matters; society has rules about whom we can touch, where, and when. Touch can be appropriate and safe, or inappropriate and unsafe. Different people as well as cultures have varying comfort levels and standards regarding touch. There are significant cultural variations in comfort with touch. Some cultures are more liberal about touching (e.g., Greek, Puerto Rican), and others less so (e.g., Germanic, British).)
Therapeutic touch can be reassuring, comforting, supportive, and down-regulating anxiety and arousal. We incorporate therapeutic touch in our treatment and parenting programs. Dyads (e.g., couples, parent-child, siblings) are encouraged to hold hands at opportune times during Attachment Communication Training to enhance caring, support, and attachment. Physical contact from parent to child (e.g., gentle touch of the arm) is encouraged during the Limbic Activation Process to communicate nurturance, empathy, and love. Parents are taught to touch their children gently and sensitively on the hands, arms, or shoulders during conversation to foster caring and connection.
The best way to provide comfort is via touch, especially when someone needs consoling. The language of touch can deeply communicate our feelings and inspire connection.
Previous articles addressed questions about the Seven Functions of Secure Attachment, the Dependency Paradox, the importance of talking about trauma, the First Year Attachment Cycle, traits of successful and healthy adult relationships, the importance of hope as a part of treatment for trauma, the core concepts of child development and parenting strategies for deescalating conflict.