THAT HU­MAN TOUCH

Phys­i­cal con­tact isn’t just a want — it’s a ne­ces­sity. All you have to do is ask sci­ence

Calgary Herald - - YOU - MADHULIKA SIKKA

Twenty-three years ago this month, my first child was born. Some hours af­ter she was born, she was in my arms feed­ing. She turned grey and stopped breath­ing. The doctor grabbed her from me and ran down to the neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit.

The next time we saw our daugh­ter, she was in a plas­tic box with tubes and wires com­ing out of her and an­noy­ing beeps all around. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. She looked alone, iso­lated and un­touch­able.

She ended up spend­ing two weeks in the NICU and along with all the var­i­ous tests and mon­i­tor­ing they did, the health-care pro­fes­sion­als en­cour­aged my hus­band and me to touch her as much as we pos­si­bly could.

We would take her out of the in­cu­ba­tor (wires and all) and hold her close, skin to skin, gen­tly sway­ing on a rock­ing chair.

My hus­band would un­but­ton the top of his shirt and plop her on his chest and then but­ton up again, hold­ing her tight.

They called it “kan­ga­roo care,” and in the ’90s it was a revo­lu­tion­ary new ap­proach to car­ing for in­fants who were in the NICU.

“Hu­man touch is very crit­i­cal for our bod­ies, mostly for our phys­i­cal health,” Tif­fany Field, di­rec­tor of the Touch Re­search In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami med­i­cal school, told me in a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view.

Phys­i­cal touch stim­u­lates pressure re­cep­tors un­der the skin and they in turn reach the va­gus nerve, which slows down the ner­vous sys­tem and essen­tially calms you by re­duc­ing your stress lev­els.

There have been hun­dreds of studies demon­strat­ing the health ben­e­fits of touch­ing and mas­sag­ing in­fants, es­pe­cially pre­ma­ture ones.

In Field’s re­search she says ba­bies who were touched gained 47 per cent more weight and were re­leased from hos­pi­tal five days ear­lier.

I will con­fess I am a hug­ger. My grown chil­dren are home dur­ing the lock­down and I hug them as much as they will let me. I miss hug­ging as a rou­tine part of my life. I hug friends, I hug my dad, I hug my sib­lings. My fam­ily is a fam­ily of hug­gers. I miss it.

Well, it turns out that touch­ing is not just im­por­tant for in­fants, it’s im­por­tant for all of us.

That’s why ev­ery story of a COVID -19 pa­tient who dies alone in a hos­pi­tal, with­out the touch of a loved one, breaks my heart. That touch pro­vides com­fort, not just for the pa­tient, but for the loved one too.

Touch­ing re­leases en­dor­phins, which boost mood, and oxy­tocin, which is some­times called “the cud­dle hor­mone,” some­thing that al­lows for bond­ing.

Field says when grand­par­ents hug their grand­child, it is emo­tion­ally mean­ing­ful but also phys­i­o­log­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant. So as we see pic­tures of grand­par­ents wav­ing to their grand­kids in a drive-by, or on a com­puter screen, it is im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that lack of phys­i­cal touch can have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on both sides.

I see that with my own fa­ther. His older grand­chil­dren are in far­away places, but the youngest two live five minutes away from him and he is de­spon­dent that he can­not hug them, have them sit in his lap or en­gage in any of the phys­i­cal demon­stra­tions of af­fec­tion we have all taken for granted.

Touch is not just im­por­tant in our emo­tional re­la­tion­ships. It can mat­ter in other, non-fa­mil­ial sit­u­a­tions.

Studies on pro­fes­sional teams in the NFL and NBA found the team that touched more played bet­ter. Field says that’s be­cause this, too, con­veys a sense of bond­ing: “In base­ball when peo­ple were be­ing hugged af­ter their home runs, they played a bet­ter game. Bas­ket­ball (re­vealed the) same kind of phe­nom­e­non ... High-fives, pats on the butt, all of those kinds of ges­tures that com­mu­ni­cate, you know, I like be­ing on the team with you.”

If you are miss­ing be­ing at your work­place, the loss of a sim­ple high-five ev­ery now and then might have some­thing to do with that.

For peo­ple who are on their own, Field sug­gests some things you can do your­self, like hug­ging your­self, rub­bing your legs and swing­ing them when you are sit­ting. Even hand­wash­ing stim­u­lates pressure re­cep­tors on the skin.

As for that baby who was grabbed from my arms and rushed to NICU? She stayed there for two weeks and then came home strapped to an ap­nea mon­i­tor for three months so we could keep tabs on her breath­ing. That baby grew up into a healthy child and now a healthy young woman.

And on her birth­day you can be sure that she will be get­ting a few ex­tra hugs from her mom and dad. It will make us all feel bet­ter. Sci­ence says so.

The Wash­ing­ton Post

GETTY IM­AGES/IS­TOCK

When a grand­par­ent hugs their grand­child, it is ben­e­fi­cial on an emo­tional and phys­i­o­log­i­cal level, says Tif­fany Field, di­rec­tor of the Touch Re­search In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami.

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