Sensitivity to Pleasant Touch Emerges During Infancy, Study Says

We parents already know that babies respond well to soft, gentle touches. Of course, we’re not really sure how, except that it helps to soothe.

Psychologists, scientists and doctors understand that this kind of touch (otherwise known as “pleasant touch”) helps cement the attachment and bond that infants form with their parents. Ultimately, this bond will aid in their development as well as the formation of healthy relationships in the future.

Dad cuddling baby

But not even professionals understand the full extent of touch or how it plays a role in psychological development. They may be one step closer, however, thanks to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Our results provide physiological and behavioral evidence that sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in development and therefore plays an important role in regulating human social interactions,” researchers from the US and Netherlands told Medical News Today.

Previous studies on adults show that stroking the skin causes a particular receptor to activate. This area only responds if that stroking is at a speed that feels “pleasant,” like a caress. Additionally, sensual caresses are only perceived as such if they come from someone we love; this ties into the “social meaning” of a touch.

Another study, which took place in 2012, used MRI scans to show that the brain region responsible for encoding touch properties (rough versus smooth) also plays a role in the social meaning of touch. In other words, the same area of the brain that senses whether or not a touch is pleasurable also senses whether or not the touch is coming from someone we love enough for the touch to be sensual. This was revolutionary material because, prior to that, scientists believed that these pieces of information were processed in different parts of the brain.

In question to how babies respond to touch, and why, Dr. Merle Fairhurst, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leizpig, Germany, and colleagues explored various touches on infants and how those infants responded.

For the study, parents were asked to sit with their babies in their laps while the researchers stroked the infants’ arms with a paintbrush. Three different stroke speeds (0.3, 3 and 30 cm per second) were used. Researchers found that, when using the 3 cm per second stroke, the babies’ heart rate slowed. They also showed more interest in the paintbrush (measured by how long and often they looked at the brush).

Even more interesting is the fact that results were strongly linked to the description parents gave about the stroke. The more sensitive the parent seemed to be to the touch, and whether it was soothing or not soothing, seemed to tie into how much the infant’s heart rate slowed during the medium-speed brush stroke. Researchers believe that this suggests a combination of “nature and nurture.”

Dr. Fairhurst suggested that it is possible babies become more sensitive to touch in relation to their parents’ sensitivity to touch.

“Another possibility is that social touch is genetically heritable and therefore correlated between caregivers and infants,” she added.

The team says they would now like to explore how pleasant touch is processed in the brain and how it affects the social functioning in babies.

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About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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