There are infinite ways to show love and affection to your little ones. That includes — but certainly isn’t limited to — providing nutritious meals, engaging in playtime, and using non-toxic bath and body care products. Yet, one of the most important things you can do daily is physical contact through loving touch whether you have a newborn or infant… or even if your little one suddenly isn’t so little anymore!
There’s a robust body of research demonstrating just how important touch is between parents and their children in order to promote healthy childhood development. We asked pediatrician Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, founder and CEO of Modern Mommy Doc and the Modern Mamas Club app, to highlight essential FYIs about physical touch that all parents should know.
Of course, holding and rocking a crying baby — as well as hugging your child and/or physically comforting them whether they’re happy or sad — are simple, tried-and-true ways to put them at ease and communicate your love and care.
“Touch is critical between parents and their children because it contributes to emotional connection and to the development of secure attachment,” Dr. Casares begins. She then mentions that mirroring (when a parent or caregiver reciprocates touch from a child) instills a sense of stability and security in the child, which can positively influence them in many ways as they grow older. “Mirroring is scientifically proven to help children feel seen and understood, which promotes psychological safety and pro-social development,” she continues.
In addition, per a 2019 review of studies on touch between parents and their children, “more affectionate touch and less punishing touch were positively associated with wellbeing and development of moral capacities and engaged moral orientation.” Essentially, positive forms of physical touch can help your child become kinder, more thoughtful, and more altruistic.
While skin-on-skin contact supports bonding between parents and babies/infants, Dr. Casares explains that touch — as well as other physical cues that reinforce love and support — are especially important for high-needs, sensitive kids, even when they’re a bit older. “They rely more than their peers on eye contact and emotional responsiveness,” she adds.
Dr. Casares says that you don’t necessarily need to set a timer to ensure that your child yields the benefits of touch shared above. With that said, she advocates for dedicated “special time” daily with your little one.
“Research shows that spending special time — a discrete moment where we have child-directed, focused play without distractions — with our children for about 20 minutes a day makes a huge difference in their resilience and emotional coping skills,” she tells us. This could involve cuddling, playing, reading, or another distraction-free bonding activities such as bath time.
“Kids need physical contact from their parents throughout their lives, though the way we connect physically with them may change,” says Dr. Casares. It’s natural to spend much more skin-on-skin time with newborns and babies, as “holding them close and even breastfeeding is appropriate,” she continues.
However, just because your child grows older and ventures into elementary school — and middle school and high school before you know it! — it doesn’t mean that they won’t benefit from a different kind of physical touch, perhaps at a less frequent cadence as well. At these later stages, “A hug or a peck on the cheek may be the way you keep that special parent-child connection alive,” Dr. Casares explains.