Sense of Touch Issues
Strengthening the Foundational Senses Series
When a child is born, he or she has quite a job to do. Over time we have lost sight of this task, but we must work to develop respect for it again: the job of growing into the physical body. Though not often recognized by experts in education and medical fields not familiar with scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s view of human life, it takes roughly seven years for a child to attain a physical body that is well developed and ready for learning in school. Early academic learning can often be a detriment to success in school, because something else has been bypassed: the neuro-developmental stages of the first seven years.
Consider house building: to commence building a house, we do not start with the wiring, wallpaper, kitchen or chimney. We start with the foundation because that is what everything else must rest upon in order for the house to stand, and so it is with our children. We must ensure that the foundation is there for all later learning to stand upon. If the foundation is not strong, then in grade school, high school, or beyond, unforeseen learning issues, including executive function problems, may arise.
A paradigm many Waldorf educators work with, given by Rudolf Steiner, is the framework of twelve senses. The senses of touch, taste, smell sight and hearing are of course in this grouping, but there are more. The first four form a group known as the Foundational Senses for obvious reasons. Upon the strength or weakness of these four senses that are hands down critical in the early years, the human being will meet the world with certainty and trust, or hesitation and fear. These foundational senses are: TOUCH, LIFE, SELF-MOVEMENT and BALANCE.
The Foundational Senses build three capacities in a child: Body Geography (knowing where the parts of your body are), Spatial Orientation (knowing where you are in space) and Dominance (having an established preference for one side of the body to do some tasks). These three capacities are basic in order for children to perform many practical activities from brushing teeth to writing words on a page and using machines both simple and complex.
THE SENSE OF TOUCH
The sense of touch is already at work in utero-the growing fetus is able to sense contact with the placenta wall, plus her hands brush against her face as another touch experience. The onset of labor brings a strong impression of squeezing, pushing and meeting a boundary. If a vaginal birth follows at least several hours of labor, chances are that the newborn will have had a substantial experience of touch in the hours and moments before birth, due to the contraction of muscles in the mother’s uterus. If a child has experienced a fast birth (under 3 hours labor) or a caesarian birth, then it is very possible that the sense of touch was not so strongly experienced. Also, a vaginal birth of a low birth weight baby will have less of a strong tactile experience due to being smaller.
Fortunately, very firm swaddling is a time honored tradition known by midwives and hospital nurses the world over to give the child the touch boundary she needs, whether she is being held or not. Many cultures promote this practice for the first three months or more and for good reason-the firm pressure gives the infant a sense of safety because there is something firm pressing back against her, just as she felt in utero.
NICU babies are often wearing only a little plastic diaper, and there’s no firm swaddling. If they receive kangaroo care (skin to skin), the parents must hold the fragile baby extremely carefully as the skin is so delicate. But once these NICU babies are home, having some fat tissue and firmer skin, they especially need months of very firm swaddling and baby massage as their skin layers grows stronger.
Pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp from California calls the first three months of life “the 4th trimester” for very good reasons and advocates firm swaddling as seen in his video and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, www.happiestbaby.com. He adeptly demonstrates an infant being wrapped extremely tightly in a blanket, with the head free, and the baby calms. Otherwise a baby may feel at a loss and crying ensues. A deep touch experience via swaddling helps babies feel more physically at home in their bodies whether or not they missed a firm pressure experience from the birth process.
A baby is essentially merged with adult caretakers for several months. In a certain sense this extends for years; over time a child individuates and develops a stronger sense of self. It is not until around age 8 or 9 that the child feels truly separate from the world; this is a common age when loneliness is expressed. Firm loving touch that begins in infancy and extends for years is an important component in raising healthy children. Using the deep and also superficial layers of our skin, we learn where we end, and where something else in the world begins-a person, a blanket, a toy. We learn that we are separate from the world but through touch we also can connect to others. With firm loving touch, a child is comforted, sheltered and contained. Yet touch also enables us to experience boundaries that help us to feel separate from the things we encounter. Through having a strongly established sense of touch, a child is better poised to learn about boundaries both physical, verbal and social.
Various issues may arise when the sense of touch has not received enough stimulation in infancy and in the early years. Also, some children with a standard vaginal birth and plenty of loving touch may still have sense of touch vulnerability for various reasons. Known as tactile defensiveness, this is a challenge for many children and has nothing to do with children being aggressive or irritable on purpose. These issues may not even show up until age ten or more. Some considerations are:
1. Although there are many reasons why a child may be anxious, including significant traumatic events, one possible symptom of tactile defensiveness is anxiety. Children who have a delicate touch sense may appear anxious; this feeling may physically reside more in the upper torso across the chest and shoulder blades. Adults can protect these vulnerable areas with hugs, firm shoulder squeezes, and clothing that covers shoulders and the upper chest.
2. A child may experience a light brush against the arm as a strong push, causing an overreaction. The adults are puzzled because they saw a light touch, yet to the child a great offence has occurred. Such a child may punch others in retaliation. Hitting is one way to protect oneself from a perceived threat, yet how often is it interpreted as an aggressive or inappropriate behavior?
3. A child may unconsciously refuse to stand in a line of children where the risk of getting bumped by others is likely, yet a teacher may see this as defiance instead. Likewise, a child may resist sitting with his back against the back of a chair, especially if it’s hard plastic. Conversely, a child may be too much “in someone’s face”, lacking a healthy sense of boundaries. When adults begin to observe a child’s situation with respect to the birth story and an understanding of tactile issues, a revelation may take place about why the child exhibits resistance to certain activities or may push too far.
4. A child may resist wearing layers of natural fibers, which are heavier than synthetic fibers, or resist wearing snug clothing, preferring a loose style without anything touching at the neck, waist, ankles and wrists, etc. Or a child may prefer to have a hooded sweatshirt on at all times, to give a boundary layer of protection from the world. A very sensitive child will hide under a hood as well, but it is worth knowing the birth history.
Mothers of twelve year old boys have told me their son will not wear underpants, socks, long sleeved shirts or anything close fitting. They wear the large baggy synthetic basketball shorts and a T-shirt, even in Vermont’s cold winters. Sometimes in these situations the sense of touch is so compromised that the child does not fully feel the effects of the cold. They are, literally and figuratively, “out of touch.”
5. Some children with tactile sensitivity seek out firm touch by crashing into people or objects, stomping around, or jumping off furniture or steps. All of these behaviors help a child to get the proprioceptive feedback he needs-feeling where his body, muscles and joints are in relation to the world around him. They seek what they need; they are not trying to destroy furniture.
6. Often these children crawl into bed with mom or dad in the night. They may wake up in their own beds and become anxious when they do not feel a boundary: “Where am I? Where do I end and where does the world begin?” So snuggling next to an adult provides that missing boundary. Sometimes the child truly does have emotional anxiety issues, but in this case there is a real physical anxiety. Putting the child to sleep with a firm bodied dog on the bed, firm body pillows or even in a sleeping bag for a cocoon experience are some strategies to help a child sleep better.
7. Other indicators of tactile defensiveness include not liking hugs from certain people (if the pressure is not right), a strong dislike of crowds and a dislike of haircuts (because it touches the head and face lightly, which is irritating). A colleague of mine told a story about a baby who cried all day when awake at home with the mother; as soon as the father came home and held the baby, he stopped crying. This naturally deflated the new mother’s self-esteem around parenting her child. Happily, this resolved when they realized the father was a football player who firmly squeezed his baby in contrast to the mother’s too gentle approach.
8. Last but not least, an insensitivity to other’s feelings. Equate a healthy tactile (touch) sense with a good sense of tact (respect and sensitivity for the other). Solid physical boundaries align with the development of healthier social boundaries, helping us be “in touch” with situations.
A Helpful Protocol:
A daily diet of firm pressure via strong hugs, cushion or futon squeezes and firm pressure massages can ameliorate the situation. Especially helpful is a morning, afternoon and bedtime routine that enables the child to feel more present in his skin, as illustrated below:
Here is a story of 4 year old boy, an only child, who was pushing others. The parents called and described their son’s hitting behavior at home and nursery school. Right away I thought that this may be a referral to a counselor but I said I was willing to observe. I arranged a time to come to their house for an hour, explaining that I would be a person coming for a cup of tea. After meeting the family and having a brief house tour, I asked the boy if he would show me his room and his toys. Eager to oblige, off we went to his room. His wooden and plastic toys were in baskets and the books on a shelf. His room was calm, without clutter, and the bed was made. As we went back downstairs, I had a clear sense that this was a nice family but that perhaps I was not the person who could help them.
Then I sat at the kitchen counter while the mother prepared my tea. When she went to the refrigerator to retrieve the milk, her back was turned to me. Her son went right up behind her, placed both hands on her bottom, and gave her a shove forward. This was what I needed to see ! We had our tea and then I left, looking forward to seeing the parents a few days later in my office.
When I asked them if their son was born by caesarian, they said he was. I explained to them what the repercussions of this were and they went home with my advice to play squeezing games in cushions, etc. A week later the mother returned a book I had loaned with a note saying, “In six days of doing the firm hugging and the squeezing games, the hitting behavior has significantly decreased.”
What can a parent do when the sense of touch is compromised ?
Children with a compromised sense of touch need firm pressure activities that can become part of a daily diet for several months. Children do outgrow this issue for the most part, and the best way to help them is to play games and do massage at home. Henning Kohler states in his book Working with Anxious, Nervous and Depressed Children: “Anxious children need gentle firmness and protection.” I add here that they also need to experience joy and fun in healthy touch experiences, as in the photo above of my twin boys. Ideas include:
Massage as tolerated, firm is best, especially to the whole back and shoulders
Shoulder rubs, strong and long bear hugs. Hold gently but firmly
Rough house play with siblings and parents (not too close to bedtime).
Flying angels (parent on floor w/ legs raised up, child’s tummy on parent’s feet)
Snow angels on floor or outside.
Wrapping in blankets/quilts-cocoon or burrito, firm pressure applied (head out).
Sandwich the child between pillows/cushions and lean your weight on them –
just not on the head. Roll the child in a futon (head safely out)
Being buried up to the neck in sand at beach if child can tolerate it, or just the legs
Millet box “magic millet” –it’s wonderful to scoop hands in to find hidden gems
Millet also has a high silica content
Being allowed to run and crash into a stack of cushions or a padded wall
Hand clap games
Rolling on the floor or grass
Playing guessing games writing number or letters on the back.
For sleeping, put long pillows on either side of the child, or put the dog on the bed-
Labs are great. A child might like to be in a sleeping bag on the bed.
Connect the activity with firm boundary, safety and security, and have fun.