Infants are sensitive to pleasant touch

Credit: Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Infants show unique physiological and behavioral responses to pleasant touch, which may help to cement the bonds between child and parent and promote early social and physiological development, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Previous studies with adults have shown that when the skin is stroked, a specific type of touch receptor is activated in response to a particular stroking velocity, leading to the sensation of "pleasant" touch. Cognitive neuroscientist Merle Fairhurst of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues hypothesized that this type of response might emerge as early as infancy.

For the study, Fairhurst and colleagues had sit in their parents' laps while the experimenter stroked the back of the infant's arm with a paintbrush. The experimenter varied the rate of the brushstrokes among three defined velocities (0.3, 3, or 30 cm per second). The experimenters gauged the infants' responses through physiological and behavioral measures.

The results showed that the infants' slowed in response to the brushstrokes but only when the strokes were of medium velocity; in other words, the touch of the medium-velocity brush helped to decrease their physiological arousal. The infants also showed more engagement with the paintbrush during the medium-velocity brushstrokes, as measured by how long and how often they looked at the brush while they were being stroked.

Interestingly, infants' slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers' own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant's heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

The researchers note that this link between caregiver and infant could be supported by both "nurture" and "nature" explanations:

"One possibility is that infants' sensitivity to pleasant touch stems from direct or vicarious experience of differing levels of social touch as a function of their caregiver's sensitivity to social touch," explains Fairhurst. "Another possibility is that social touch is genetically heritable and therefore correlated between caregivers and infants."

According to the researchers, the findings "support the notion that pleasant touch plays a vital role in human social interactions by demonstrating that the sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in human development."

They argue that the ability to perceive and sensitively response to pleasant touch is likely vital early in life because of the fundamental role that touch plays in affiliation, bonding, and synchrony between infants and caregivers.

Fairhurst and colleagues plan on extending these findings by exploring the brain basis of pleasant touch using neuroimaging tools and by investigating the psychological effects that pleasant touch has on infants' social functioning.

More information: pss.sagepub.com/content/early/… 97614527114.abstract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.