September 2011

The Importance of Human Touch

Physical and emotional communication: the key to healthy psychological development in infants.

By: Louise McGovern
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Lanarkshire - United Kingdom

Physical contact - a very important factor in the development of a child

The early years of a child’s life are the most significant in terms of growth and devel-opment. Research now shows a direct link between the physical and emotional contact children receive in their early years, and their psychological state throughout their lives. According to an article in Science American last year, “children who grow up in envi-ronments where touch and emotional engagement are lacking”, are at a much higher risk of developing social and emotional problems in their teenage and adult lives.

“The strength and vulnerability of the human brain lies in its ability to shape itself. Our experiences, particularly our earlier experiences become biologically rooted in our brain structure and chemistry from the time of our gestation and most profoundly in the first year of our life” Balbernie, 2001.

Children who miss out on this crucial relationship often develop without the ability to deal with certain emotions or scenarios in a balanced manner. John Bowlby, ethologist and psychoanalyst states that infants are born with an innate need to bond. Maternal separation or loss is dramatic because it prevents the development of a biological need, something that will form the basis of their future psychological health. Communication between child and parent (or caregiver) is essential and begins almost immediately after birth. Research into this subject is ongoing, however it is clear that the success of this bonding process is hugely beneficial and shapes the child’s personality and development. In the first three years, children develop a full spectrum of social and emotional functions - the ability to form satisfying relationships with others, play, communicate, learn, and express emotions. (1)

Emotional and physical engagement even influence the child´s health

Photo: Freddy Mita

Prior to scientific proof of the benefits, parent and baby have been communicating through non vocal means for millennia. The instinct to bond with and protect one´s child is innate and experienced by both humans and animals alike.

In 1978, Columbian paediatrician Dr. Edgar Rey, introduced the Kangaroo Care system, based on research into the female kangaroos´ maternal care for her young. Understand-ing the benefits of such close baby and mother contact, he introduced Kangaroo Care as an incubator substitute in a premature baby ward, where access to such equipment was limited. The idea was researched and further developed by doctors working in Instituto Materno Infantil in Bogota, Colombia and there is now proof that this type of care – based on direct skin-to-skin contact, supersedes that of the incubator. Benefits to the baby include lowering and stabilizing heart rates; increasing growth rates and more alert and responsive behavior.

This research confirms the need to ensure all children are offered the emotional and physical support they require in the early years of their life.

According to UNICEF statistics, there are approximately 163 million orphaned and dis-placed children worldwide today. Based on figures, provided by (name and title of the woman who gave the orphanage speech?Fredy), there are 10,000 in Cochabamba, Boli-via.

While the law in Bolivia ensures that state institutes provide food, clothes and shelter, it is clear children require far more than a basic survival kit. With already stretched re-sources and growing numbers of displaced children in Cochabamba, I visited an orpha-nage in the city to see just how big a role human touch and emotional engagement plays in its day to day running.

There are over 100 kids in the orphanage I visited, where they live and are cared for full time. While their backgrounds will differ greatly, ultimately they are in the institution because their parents could not provide them with adequate care - poverty, alcohol abuse and violence, the main contributing factors.

Eternal care
Photo: Ximena Noya

With one member of staff to approximately 10-15 children, the volunteers´ presence allows more time to be spent with the children recreationally, both in groups and on a one to one basis.

Spending time with the children highlighted to Flora (Projects Abroad volunteer) one of the main issues that both the staff and volunteers have to address with the children they care for. Due to the instability of their backgrounds, the most common characteristic that the children share is a lack of confidence both in themselves and the people around them.

“They constantly seek attention and reassurance”, says Flora. They need to be told they are doing well and that the carers approve of them – something many have missed out on in their early years. “In order for them to grow and function in society, they have to believe they are worth the attention of others, and know that someone believes in them”.

Tactile communication is a method regularly adopted to encourage and comfort the children. Something as simple as a hug can remedy their insecurities. Flora believes that human touch is a very important part of their care. Children need to know they are loved, appreciated and are valuable human beings; often physical contact is the best way to demonstrate this.

With their past a major contributory factor in their behavioral patterns, it is not uncom-mon for the children to be disruptive or confrontational. The volunteer said in order to calm them; physical contact is often the most effective method. To shout or ignore would simply fuel their frustrations and break any bonds of trust already built in their time at the orphanage. To calm the situation they try to hold the child’s hand or rub their back, a technique she says generally receives a positive response from the child.

Flora was very keen to highlight the excellent work they do at the orphanage, and I wit-nessed firsthand the amount of work involved. Aware that her time was limited though, she admits her affection towards the children had to be controlled, knowing her leaving could be detrimental to their development. Children require stability, particularly those in the care of the orphanage, and perhaps the only downfall of the positive work they carry out, is that the volunteers cannot stay forever. Her hope is that the attention and engagement they receive in their time at the orphanage, will allow them to develop a sense of self worth that they can utilise for their future.

It is obvious that the social and economic factors that create homeless, uncared for and abandoned children both in Bolivia and across the world cannot be changed by one vo-lunteer in one orphanage in Cochabamba. However, it is important to see the signific-ance in what the staff and volunteers in the orphanage offer the children, and how cru-cial it can be to their development.

The research shows that skin-to-skin contact and emotional and physical engagement are hugely beneficial to the health, wellbeing and happiness of the child. While there are a number of factors throughout a human life that contribute to decisions made and paths taken, this evidence highlights the importance of those early experiences and the impact it can have throughout the adult life.


Orphanage work
a fleeting influence

As a first time volunteer walking through the gates of the orphanage, I was welcomed immediately. The Tia (Aunt), who I assisted during my time theremade it clear she really appreciated my help. I was to find her inspiring to work with, but even more amazing was the welcome that I received from the children. It is immediately apparent just how much they crave the care and attention of volunteers, and throughout my time there, I was to realise how important it is for this to be more consistent.

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