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  • Jana Wheeler

The Importance of Skin-To-Skin Contact

Touch is the first sense that we learn. Humans love to be touched. It’s an undeniable fact, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a full-on squishy bear hug or a massage, touch is one of the most important things you can give to your body.

The skin on skin contact from a hug, massage or just holding hands induces oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, which can be a potent way to support your health, from lowering your cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate to boosting your immune system and giving you pain relief. As we all know, it also helps us to feel less stressed and anxious.

Babies and skin to skin contact

Human growth and development depend on touch, starting at birth. From a very early age, babies crave being held and touched. Studies have shown that without skin on skin contact as a baby, our immune systems can suffer.

Babies who haven’t experienced enough cuddles, touch and general affection can often be susceptible to illnesses. Tiffany Field, PhD, founder of the Touch Research Institute at the Miami School of Medicine, notes that in a study on pre-term infants, massaging newborns increased their weight and allowed them to be discharged earlier. It’s something very simple that could save the healthcare system billions annually. (1)

An even more extreme example comes from the turn of the 20th century, when American childcare was under the influence of the idea that children should never be “spoiled” with too much handling. As a result, a 1915 study showed that mortality rates in American orphanages were close to 100% (!!!), so a lack of touch literally killed a terrible number of babies.(2)

Adults need to be touched too...

And I’m talking about safe, non-threatening, appropriate touch. This needs to be clearly stated, since touch has become, well, a touchy topic. Despite the growing research of the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, social norms, which tend in interpret any kind of touch in a sexual way, make Americans one of the most touch-deprived people in the world. (3)

When you want to comfort somebody, especially children, most people automatically think of pats, hugs, and different kind of physical comfort – it’s an instinct. But one we are close to losing. (4)

In research done back in 1976, clerks at a university library returned library cards to students either with or without briefly touching the student's hand. Interviews later revealed that those who'd been touched evaluated the clerk and the library as more favorably. The effect held even when students hadn't noticed the touch. (3)

Did you know that touch predicted performance in NBA teams? A study tracked physical contact between teammates during NBA games (high fives, backslaps, chestbumps..). They showed that the more contact there was early in the season, the more successful individuals AND teams were at the end. That effect was independent of salary and performance, so it wasn’t just that more skilled or paid athletes just touched more. (5)

It’s a sad fact of life that some of us can go many days without direct skin on skin contact – even if we’re in a relationship, we can sometimes be too busy or working odd hours and neglect this basic need.

It’s so important to get our fix of being touched, though. Anyone who has regular massages can tell you that if you’re feeling stressed and antsy a massage will soon calm you down. Sometimes it’s all you need, and the relaxation effect is a physical reaction to the contact you get

from massage therapist.

Being massaged makes your muscles unclench if you’re all scrunched up. If your blood pressure is high, it can actually drop after a massage and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) will drop. Because you’re lovely and relaxed, your body has the breathing space to start recharging your

batteries so that you’ll feel much better afterwards.

But of course, a professional massage isn’t the only way to experience all the positive effects on skin-to skin contact. A shoulder rub for (or by) your partner or a friend, more handshakes, even your pet can do wonders for your stress-levels and health! (Have you ever noticed how crazy pets are about being rubbed? They’re onto something…)

So in summary: Touch, or skin-to-skin contact, isn’t some overrated indulgence or luxury, it’s necessary for our very survival, and definitely good performance and well-being. So, let’s all try to include more in our lives, whatever way you prefer!

(2) Montagu, A. (1995). Touching. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

(5) Kraus, M. (2010). Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA. Emotion, 10(5), 745-749.


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