“To touch can be to give life”
The moment my son was born, I wanted to put my hands on him. I wanted to hold him, stroke him and have him close to my skin. My hormones and heart were working together to activate the action of ‘touch’ in a new mother. With amazing force our bodies and brains alert us to the power of touch. Whether it is in the desire to touch and hold a new born baby, or wrap our arms around a stranger in distress, touch is a huge part of who we are. There is so much going on when humans (and animals) share nurturing touch: compassion, immunity boosting, communication, emotion, healing, support – it’s all happening in human touch. Touch triggers hormonal responses, it can initiate a compassionate response, it can instill a sense of calm and it can encourage us to achieve where we would otherwise fail. Touch is incredible.
But, don’t listen to me, listen to Dacher Keltner from Berkley about his research on touch:
Sadly, at least in our “touch deprived” North American society, touching is often viewed with suspicion. As early as infant-hood we are taught to be suspicious of touch, with parenting ‘experts’ warning against holding an infant ‘too much’ for fear of spoiling the child. Spoiling? Do we spoil a child who learns that in receiving or giving a nurturing touch that her entire body, emotions and thoughts can be calmed? Yes, truly a terrible thing to ingrain in a newborn.
In my own family, we have utilized nurturing touch as a cornerstone of our experiences with gentle parenting. Some of the ways that nurturing touch figured into our life when Aodhan was an infant and toddler included:
- skin to skin contact at birth (with dad and mama)
- bathing with both parents
- babywearing at naps, during the day, during times of emotional upset, during moments of stress (such as moving or travel)
- cuddling, back rubbing, stroking hair, infant massage
Now that Aodhan is no longer breastfeeding and has grown too large even for our best baby-carrier, we have had to reconsider how we offer nurturing touch to our son. Here are some of the ways that we inject nurturing touch into our days, and how we use it to create authentic moments in our parent-child relationships.
- co-sleeping: Aodhan and I bedshare, and it is something that I ask myself to find joy in every night. It isn’t always easy to have a little one in your bed, but I consider our relationship and his confidence to be better off for the physical and emotional support that I can offer him in the night time hours. As Aodhan falls asleep, I rub his back or trace little circles on his tummy. In the middle of the night, he keeps his feet tucked tightly between my legs and we sleep close to one another. This closeness allows for a sense of symbiosis, despite having ended our breastfeeding relationship.
- physical contact during ‘big’ emotions: When the world overwhelms Aodhan, or when he is feeling the need to push against the limits that surround any 3.5 year old, both his father and I do our best to offer him nurturing touch. Whether it is holding him tightly to help him find a sense of calm, or just stroking his hand as he chokes out the reason why he feels so sad, touch offers him a sense of support without having to listen to his parents. Our touch says so much, but allows him the quiet to work through whatever he is struggling through. I see in my boy a need to be held when his sadness mounts and is too much for him. He looks to us to scoop him up and offer him our shoulders.
- hair washing and brushing: I don’t jump in the tub with Aodhan much any more. Not because I am weirded out by our nudity as he advances in age, but because I tend to use my own bathtime as a time for solace. But, I still get to wash his hair and brush out the curls. I do both of these things in the bathtub, and only when he permits it, a time when nurturing touch instills not only calm but also a sense of trust.
- during activities: whether we are working on an art project, hanging out at the library or building a lego train, Aodhan and I are in constant contact. There isn’t an hour that goes by when we aren’t giving a hug, a high five or finding peace in a snuggle. We don’t let what we are doing inhibit our touch.
- playful parenting: a big component of gentle discipline is working to find playfulness in discussing behaviours that Aodhan needs to reconsider. We try our best to incorporate silliness and playfulness in gently guiding our boy towards the social behaviours that make sense in our family. Sometimes gentle touch is an element of this. For example, when Aodhan was in the habit of chasing our dear cats, I would be silly and pretend to be Aodhan – chasing him down the hall and ‘gently’ tackling him as we talked about how scary that might be for a little kitten who wasn’t expecting a big boy to chase her down the hall. The giggles and touch make these conversations more palatable to the littlest kitty-attacker.
- massage: when Aodhan is sick or sad, or when he is falling asleep, massage is a great way for us to connect with him. In particular, he likes to have his little feet rubbed while I sing him a few lullabies.
There are so many beneficial options for offering your older child nurturing touch. Always seek consent from your kiddo (especially if tickling, bathing or using some of the playful parenting techniques I suggested) and watch for signs that your young one is ready to move onto something else.
How do you offer nurturing touch to your older kids?