What is the importance of physical contact in childhood?
This is the psychological impact of physical contact between children and parents in infancy.
It has been proven that physical contact in infancy is of vital necessity.. So much so that if it does not occur, the child's proper development may be affected.
The human baby, in comparison with other offspring of other species, is more fragile, needing physical and emotional contact with its caregiver in order to survive, grow properly and develop one of the most outstanding characteristics of human beings, that of being sociable beings.
This need for physical contact is already shown in the first moments of life, being advisable the direct contact of the newborn with its mother, body to body contact, in order to develop more easily the bond between them, which is so important for the proper growth of the child. This first physical contact will mark physical contact at later ages.
In this article we will see what drives the child to seek this physical contact, as well as the importance that this has in the correct development of the child and the alterations that can occur if there is not an adequate physical contact, if the figure of support of the child is not present or is present but in an inadequate way.
Why physical contact in infancy is essential.
Physical contact between caregiver and child has been described as both a physical and emotional need.It is considered a fundamental factor in fulfilling the emotional and affective security of the child. Similarly, benefits of physical contact have also been observed in other areas such as motor, cognitive and motor areas.
Studies focused on the first years of an individual's life, the infancy period, have shown that the satisfaction of basic needs such as physiological needs, the need to feel protected from danger, the need to explore their environment, the need to play and the need to establish affective bonds are very important.
In order to adequately satisfy these basic needs, the child's physical contact with a representative figure is essential. This need for contact with another individual leads to the emergence of a bond between the infant and the support person, a person who seeks to meet the child's needs.This bond is known in psychology as the "support person", the person who tries to satisfy the child's needs. This bond is known in psychology as attachment.
We can say that the bond leads to the need for physical contact, and physical contact is essential for the bond to continue to form correctly, thus creating a secure attachment. In the same way, affective needs cannot be satisfied if there is no physical contact between the child and the attachment figure.
What is attachment?
Attachment is defined as the affective bond of a person or animal with another of the same species.It is a long process, which begins with the attachment of a person or animal to another of the same species. It is a long process, which begins to develop in the second month of life and lasts for life. Although it seems that the most sensitive period, where separation anxiety can occur, is from 6 months to 2 years of age.
The child's need for physical contact during early childhood will make him/her tend to get closer to the attachment figure and thus maintain physical proximity and communicate with him/her.
The author who initiated the studies on attachment was John Bowlby, who considered it as a control system with Biological influence (innate) directed to a goal and motivated by the need to feel security. That is, that the attachment figure, for example, the parent, provides a secure base so that the child can move around and explore the external environment..
Ainsworth described three types of attachment: secure attachment, the most common and with which the child presents adequate behavior, seeking contact with the parent and exploring the exterior, and two forms of insecure attachment, the avoidant or rejecting, the child is indifferent to the attachment figure and the ambivalent or resistant, the child remains close but at the same time resists contact.
Mention is also made of disorganized attachment, which is a combination of the two insecure attachments, with the child showing contradictory behavior towards the mother.
It was observed that the mother's sensitivity to the child's needs was of vital importance.. The children with secure attachment had kind, receptive mothers, who were not annoying and did not mistreat the child, presenting an adequate physical and emotional contact.
Studies demonstrating the importance of physical contact
As we have already noted, Bowlby observed a tendency in young children to seek proximity, physical contact, with a representative figure, a special relationship that the author calls attachment.
Other studies with primates supported the need for physical contact in infants. Harlow and Harlow observed that the main cause for forming the bond, the attachment between chimpanzee offspring and their mothers, was not the need to be fed, but rather the need for warm physical contact. the need for warm physical contact with their mother..
This fact is confirmed by a study in which they separated the infant from its attachment figure and then let them choose between a cold but food-providing dummy or a dummy with no food but covered with soft plush. The authors found that the offspring showed preference for the warm-textured doll, corroborating the importance for the child of adequate physical contact..
Affectations of no physical contact in children
The child is especially vulnerable to separation from the attachment figure, which consequently entails the loss of physical contact with the latter. It has been seen that between the period from 6 months to 2 years of age this vulnerability intensifies; if the loss of the support figure occurs, it can produce physiological and psychological alterations in the infant.. These affectations are divided into two groups depending on whether they occur in the short or long term.
The child may present stress, agitation and symptoms of the depressive spectrum.. Bowlby observed that the evolution of this anxious-depressive clinic develops in three phases.
In the first phase called phase of protest, they appear in the child strong cries and attempts of escape, passed a period of time, in the phase of ambivalence (or despair), if the figure of attachment returns the child shows disinterest, finally in the phase of adaptation (or detachment), if the conditions are favorable it will be able to develop a new bond.
In the long term
If the child is not able to adapt to the separation and new contacts are not established, it is possible that the child can present intellectual retardation, problems in the social relations and can even die..
Disorders due to lack of physical contact
As we have already mentioned, the lack of adequate physical contact between the child and the support figure will hinder the proper development of the bond between them, making the development of attachment more complicated. It has been seen that this alteration in attachment can lead to short-term alterations, some of which have already been mentioned, as well as to disorders at later ages.
Spitz observed that institutionalized children between 6 and 12 months of age who had previously had a normal relationship with their mother. When the mother disappeared, and consequently the child lost physical and emotional contact with her, depending on the duration of this period, the child could show two conditions, the child could show two different conditions.
In the first months, after the loss of contact between 1 and 3 months with the support figure, the child showed crying, withdrawal, weight loss and vulnerability to illness, an alteration that Spitz called anaclitic depression.
If this loss of contact with the protective figure persisted, after 3 to 5 months, the child could develop hospitalism syndrome.The child may present total passivity, vacant facial expression, intellectual and developmental delay or even death, known as death by marasmus.
Disorders related to attachment
In this section we will mention two disorders related to deficient attachment, that is to say, with an alteration of the bond.
In both disorders In both disorders, the presence of social neglect is a common and indispensable requirement for them to occur, and for them to be considered attachment disorders.. This neglect is due to an absence of adequate care during infancy, characterized by social neglect or lack of emotional stimulation, failure to meet physical needs, repeated changes of the support figure, which does not allow the bond to form, or upbringing in unusual places where physical and emotional contact is nonexistent or very scarce.
The DSM 5, a diagnostic manual published by the APA, classifies two attachment-related disorders. First, reactive attachment disorderThe first is reactive attachment disorder, which is presented as a disorder of internalization of depressive symptoms and withdrawal behavior, children with this condition show both social and emotional disturbance.
On the other hand, the disorder of the disinhibited social relationshipas its name indicates, will be characterized by disinhibited conduct and externalizing behavior.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)