- Affectionate touch may help improve the parent-child bond, build a child's "social brain," calm them down, and even reduce pain.
- Activating C-Tactile fibers through slow and gentle touch makes physical affection more pleasant and rewarding for children.
- If physical affection does not work for a parent or child, there are other ways to show love and affection.
C-Tactile fibers are nerves in our skin that are tuned for sensing affectionate touch and transmitting this sensation to the brain. Research finds that the type of touch that parents naturally use (gentle, light stroking at a specific rate) seems to optimally activate C-Tactile fibers. Specifically, one experiment found that parents naturally stroke their children at the exact rate that optimally activates C-Tactile fibers yet use a different rate when stroking an artificial arm. Interestingly, even babies show a sensitivity to the slow, gentle touch that activates C-tactile fibers.
C-Tactile fibers are especially responsive to the exact temperature of human skin, suggesting that these pathways were built specifically for human physical affection. In other words, our brains and nervous systems are literally wired for physical affection.
So why is affectionate touch so important that it deserves its own pathway to the brain? When C-tactile fibers are optimally activated, regions of the brain involved in social bonding and reward are activated. This means that the touch is perceived as more pleasant and rewarding and may motivate children to bond with their caregivers and pay attention to and learn from those around them.
Other lines of research have also found that affectionate touch is critical for healthy brain development. Researchers observed mothers with their 5-year-old children during play and found that mothers who touched their children more during play had children with greater connectivity among brain regions involved in social and emotional development. These findings suggest that touch is important in developing a “social brain.”
In line with these findings, research also finds that affectionate touch in childhood is associated with enhanced social and moral development and improved well-being later in life. These effects also seem to be long-lasting: Research finds that a high level of affection in the first year of life is associated with less stress and anxiety as an adult.
You might be thinking: “Okay, it seems like C-tactile fibers and affectionate touch are important for social-emotional development, but how can I use this information to help me parent today?”
Research finds that you may be able to use this type of affectionate touch to calm your child down when they are upset, reduce their stress in challenging situations, and even decrease pain during a painful medical procedure or injury. Activation of the C-Tactile fibers may lower heart rate, lead to more positive emotions, and reduce pain responses. The next time your child is upset, try using this type of slow and gentle touch to help them to feel better.
How to Activate C-Tactile Fibers
- Use slow, light touch. Research finds that a slow and gentle touch should optimally activate this pathway and this type of touch is rated as more pleasant by children.
- Focus on the back, arms, legs, and face. C-Tactile fibers are most concentrated in the skin covered in fine hair, such as the back, arms, legs, and face (as compared to the palm of the hand or the bottom of the foot, which are relatively hairless). This may seem like a strange suggestion, but you may want to focus more on these “hairy” regions if you want to activate these special nerve fibers. In particular, the arms and face seem to have a lot of C-Tactile fibers.
- Use skin-to-skin contact. C-Tactile fibers are most responsive to human skin temperature so remember to use skin-to-skin contact whenever possible, particularly with newborn babies.
- Start from birth. Research finds that this pathway is functioning in 2-month-old infants, so it is never too early to start.
Increase the Physical Affection You Give Your Child
Even for the most affectionate parents, it is easy to fall out of the habit of providing regular physical affection to your child. It would clearly seem very odd if you started randomly stroking your children because you think it’s somehow good for their brain development. So how can you increase the amount of physical affection you give your child in a way that naturally fits into your day-to-day life as a parent?
- Try to incorporate touch into your daily routine. For example, cuddle in bed when your child wakes up in the morning or before they go to bed at night, spend extra time washing their hair or body in the bath, have a goodbye ritual that involves hugging or kissing, or stroking their arm while reading them books at night.
- Find new ways to give your child physical affection. With infants, you can wear them in a sling or carrier (try a skin-to-skin carrier for the added benefit of skin-to-skin contact) or use infant massage. You can also hold, cuddle, touch, stroke, rock, and kiss them. As children get older, try to find new ways to offer physical affection. Turn affection into a game by being a “snuggle monster” or giving them a “kiss attack.” Even wrestling and roughhousing often involve physical touch.
- When your child is sad, frustrated, scared, or experiencing any challenging emotion, provide physical comfort by stroking their back, arms, or face. The research described above suggests that activating C-tactile fibers may help them to calm down more quickly.
- Give physical affection when praising your child or even when disciplining them. This small act will make both positive and negative attention from you more powerful.
It is important to note that some parents find physical affection difficult due to trauma history, a lack of physical affection in their own childhood, sensory sensitivities, or other factors. Children with autism and other neurodiverse children, as well as children with a trauma history, also may not enjoy physical affection to the same extent or may prefer a different type of physical affection.
If this is the case for you or your child, try to show your child affection in a way that works for both of you. You can try using non-physical approaches, including loving words and gestures, or simply paying special attention to your child. If your child is old enough, have an ongoing conversation about how they like to show and receive love.
Affectionate touch may help to improve the parent-child bond, build your child’s “social brain,” calm them down, and even reduce pain. You can try to make affectionate touch more pleasant and rewarding for children by activating their C-Tactile fibers through slow and gentle touch. However, if physical affection does not work for you and/or your child, know that you can find other ways to show love and affection.