• Livio Provenzi

"U can't touch this [?!]" - Understanding the role of social touch in children with disability

In Western societies, caregiving - and theories about caregiving - are for the most part head- or face-centric. Vis-à-vis contact, face-to-face interactions, face emotional expressions... we have been thought that these are the classic formats of early relationship between parents and infants. Nonetheless, recent advances on sensory processing in humans are unveiling the social role of gentle touch in infants and children emotional development.

Special sensory fibers - namely, C-tactile fibers - in heairy skin seem to be especially responsive and sensitive to gentle touch, sending information about our social touch encounters to a dedicated brain hub, the insula. Notably, insula is one of the brain areas involved in the development of an individual's body image, so that we can hypothesize that our early touch exchanges in infancy contribute to the emergence of our mental representation of our body and our body in interaction. Moreover, the same kind of social touch typical of maternal physical stimulations - e.g., caresses and stroking - appears to be beneficial to orient infants' attention toward physical and socio-emotional stimuli in the sorrounding environment.


So, social - and maternal - touch appears to be much more relevant than previously hypothesized for the development of healthy infants and children. But what about children with neurodevelopmental disability and psychomotor delay? How do mothers touch their children when they present cognitive and/or motor limitations? Is social touch serving the same function? Is it still contingent with children behavioral regulation?


Social maternal touch is key to socio-emotional development in healthy infants. But what about children with disability? Can we build models of early intervention that can catalyze the benefits of maternal social touch?

In order to provide initial responses to these questions, in a recently published study on Infant Behavior & Development, we investigated the functions of maternal touch during 10-minute playful interactions in dyads of mothers and children with neurodevelopmental disability (ND), compared to dyads of children with typical development (TD). Microanalytic 2-s coding of maternal touch (i.e., affectionate, playful, facilitating, holding, no touch) and children’s gaze orientation (i.e., mother-oriented, object-oriented, non-oriented) occurred. All the children were 12-to-24-month-old and they were paired for sex and age between the two groups.


First, mothers of children with ND used more touch – especially facilitating and holding types of social touch –, compared to mothers of TD peers. This finding was consistent with our clinical observations and may suggests that face-centric and/or vocal strategies may be only partially succesful in obtaining children engagement with parents when the former present some kind of psychomotor delay.


Second, children with ND exhibited more non-orientated gaze compared to TD counterparts. Nonetheless, different patterns of touch-to-gaze associations emerged in ND and TD dyads. In children with ND, maternal playful touch associated with increased mother-oriented gaze. In children with TD, maternal affectionate and holding touch was significanly associated with greater mother-oriented gaze.


Although preliminary, these findings suggest that the specific types of touch associated with children' s social attention to their interactive adult partners may change according to the psychomotor growth and delay of the children themselves, revealing novel pathways through which mothers implicitly try to adapt and attune to the availability of their children. Furthermore, these findings seems to indicate that, in presence of ND conditions, touch-based parenting interventions should be targeted to individual characteristics of the child and his/her response to

interpersonal physical stimulations.

Read the full article here.


Full citation: Provenzi L, Rosa E, Visintin E, Mascheroni E, Guida E, Cavallini A, Montirosso R (2020) Understanding the role and function of maternal touch in infants with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Infant Behavior and Development, 58, 101420. Doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2020.101420

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