Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Born for Love

Touching Empathy

Lack of physical affection can actually kill babies.

Posted Mar 01, 2010

Last week's Science Times had a neat article about the communicative and healing power of touch that became one of the site's most emailed articles. And it's not surprising: we live in a country that's starved for physical affection-a place where an outbreak of hugging by high school students prompts media coverage and even alarm, when many other cultures would find it either unremarkable or worth celebrating.

As the Times notes, however, touch can ease pain, lift depression and even possibly increase the odds that a team will win.

But touch is even more vital than this: babies who are not held and nuzzled and hugged enough will literally stop growing and-if the situation lasts long enough, even if they are receiving proper nutrition-die.

Researchers discovered this when trying to figure out why some orphanages had infant mortality rates around 30-40%. We now know that orphanages are no place for infants-babies aged zero to five simply do not receive enough stimulation in group residential care to develop to the fullest of their capacities.

Critical here is individualized, physical parental attention. For one, this nurturing is necessary for the brain to learn to connect human contact with pleasure. This association is one of the foundations of empathy: we connect first through soothing touch and shared smiles.

Sadly, babies raised in orphanages often begin to fear touch and avoid it-without having intensive, repeated, loving contact with the same one or two loving people, they simply can't make the proper connections. They don't get enough repetition with particular people to build in bonding. And that can spell trouble in later life as this early touch helps provide the template for all relationships thereafter.

Thankfully, when children raised in orphanages are placed in loving homes, much of this damage can be reversed. But some children never overcome it-and given the grounding of our early experience in nurturing touch, we'd do well to consider adding more friendly touch to our lives. Nursery schools and preschools-and even high schools-sometimes ban physical contact in a misguided attempt to avoid sexual abuse.

That's likely not only to be ineffective, but actively counterproductive. If kids don't get healthy touch, they are more vulnerable to predators who will ultimately harm them. Indeed, some cross-cultural research suggests that cultures which lavish more affection on infants and children are less violent and less prone to crime.

So, if you want empathetic children-and an empathetic culture-touch and be touched.

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