January 30, 2023

On Parenting: Nurturing touch is a parenting superpower | Community

Samantha Gray

Samantha Gray

A few parents and I were recently talking about the impact of nurturing touch with our children. Not just out of the blue — it was the subject of the parenting class we were in together.

We talked about connecting with our children through the ages with hugs, fist bumps, roughhousing, baby-wearing, rocking and even infant massage. Gentle touch dissolves the tension of conflict, and it draws attention better than repeated calls or nagging. Soothing touch is more effective than reasoning during a tantrum.

Of our senses, touch is the one sense we cannot live without. We know this because of the devastating consequences of early misunderstanding of germ theory that left children cared for but not held, as well as from the tremendous strides from the use of skin-to-skin kangaroo care in hospital and other settings. In both circumstances, engaging touch is what saves lives.

Nurturing touch saves and nurtures relationships. When our child is celebrating, a hug shows our joy. When our teen is disappointed, our arm around her shoulders offers strength and shares in the loss and pain. Recent research shows that the sound of our voice helps reduce an infant’s pain from an injection and is more significantly reduced when the infant is held or breastfed.

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Nurturing touch releases important “feel-good” hormones benefiting both parents and children, making the parenting road a little easier. It’s easier because the oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin being generated help us, and our children, feel happy, calm and relaxed — and generally better. Who doesn’t want parenting to be a little easier?

From the beginning, our children express their need for touch, teaching us to parent and respond sensitively to their cues. Picking up a crying child, in turn, teaches him that he can count on us, that he can trust us, that we are his safety and security. Not responding with touch in an attempt to avoid “spoiling” rather fosters infant responses of anxiety or shutting down and can desensitize us to our child’s communication about her needs.

Our safe touch helps our children experience and establish a guide for what is healthy and nurturing touch for a lifetime. Touch is so vital that our children will seek it out. By providing what they need while they are little and as they grow, we are in a position to set the standard for respectful touch while they gain confidence and autonomy.

There is magic in the time we spend with our children in a hug or holding hands because inherent to touch is that it cannot happen without being together. In that close moment is the time we spend learning who they are and getting to know them.

Knowing our children well helps us be better, more understanding parents. The bonus magic is that every time we hold our children, pick them up, wrestle with them, hug them or hold them in a carrier, we too benefit from the power and the healing of nurturing touch.

Samantha Gray is a mother of three and the coordinator of the Parenting Education Network, an initiative of Bristol’s Promise (BristolsPromise.org). She is also the executive director of Nurturings, an international parenting education and support organization (Nurturings.org), and the author of “Directing Confidence: Cathy DeCaterina’s Theatre Bristol” and “Let’s Dress up and Pretend” (TheatreBristol.org).