The language of social touch

Learn about the mechanisms behing social touch and its importance in babies' development.

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Did you know that touch is one of the first senses that develops and it all starts in the womb? Our sense of touch tells us all about the world around us.

Social touch or skin-to-skin is crucial for that first crucial early attachment before babies can even see their mother, father or caregiver, as well as for the development of the social brain.

Scientists have identified special nerve fibers of social touch, called ‘C nerve fibres’,  as different from those involved in discriminatory touch where we find out about things with our hands. These C nerve fibres take the scenic route to the brain, they are not useful for finding out about the physical environment – they are too slow. Instead, they are specialised to carry information about social touch.

Social touch is slow, it’s warm, it’s gentle. It is the strokes of the back, the cuddles, the rubs of the tummy, the pats and the massage. Even the tickles. Social touch is all about social relationships and bonding.

Social touch is associated with the release of oxytocin (dubbed ‘the love hormone’), as well as other opioids throughout both the parent and the babies’ bodies, giving an immediate calming and soothing effect as well as inhibiting sensations of pain or discomfort. It is thought that touch experiences in the womb, floating in the amniotic fluid, primes babies (through activation of the vestibular system) to be comforted more by the movement of carrying and rocking far above and beyond holding alone. That is why babies as well children (and adults) love to be carried and rocked.

Social touch is such a powerful force in human development, shaping how we learn through social reward, underpinning secure attachment, shaping our cognitive development, assisting communication, and laying the foundation for our emotional regulation patterns from the womb and early infancy as well as throughout the rest of our lives.

Reading and resources

For an overview of research research in the area, here is an excellent article:

Carissa J. Cascio, David Moore, Francis McGlone, Social touch and human development, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience