Contact Comfort

Harlow's studies on young monkeys yielded another important finding:Little orphans deprived of the warmth of a live mother monkey were less healthy than their peers. Researchers have found that this, too, has parallels in the world of humans. Youngsters in orphanages often have poor weight gain. Some sicken and die if they are not held and cuddled regularly, even if they are otherwise cared for. This medical condition is called “failure to thrive.”

Experts now agree that loving human touch, “contact comfort,” is a basic need, as important as food and water for physical and emotional development. Contact comfort has important health benefits for people of all ages. By learning to reach out for a hug, toddlers learn a skill that will help them stay healthy!

Soothing Touches

When young toddlers are upset, words alone aren't enough to comfort them because of their limited comprehension of speech. They need:

  • A shoulder to cry on when they are sad

  • A lap to bury their faces in when they are afraid

  • Arms to hug them and provide comfort and reassurance

  • Back rubs to soothe them when they are ill

  • Tickles to cheer them up

  • Hugging, kissing, rocking, rubbing, and cuddling have relaxing and soothing physical effects. A toddler's pulse rate slows and respiration becomes more even. Endorphins released into the bloodstream provide a sense of well-being. Soothing touches are also important for building trust and strengthening the child's emotional attachment to the primary caregiver. Studies show that youngsters in intensive care recover more rapidly if they are regularly massaged, stroked, held, or otherwise able to reap the benefits of human touch.

    Holding It Together

    The last thing enraged toddlers may want is to be held and comforted, especially if they are furious with the person who is trying to do the comforting. Even if out-of-control youngsters attempt to pull away, it can help them to be physically held. They are relieved that someone can contain the anger that feels so huge and overwhelming to them. It is as frightening to a toddler to be out of control as it is to an adult.

    To help your toddler feel better about the wildness within her, read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 1988). It can comfort her to know she's not alone. She may also enjoy hearing Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1987).

    Since human touch is critical for both physical health and emotional development, parents should try to help standoffish toddlers overcome their resistance to being cuddled. Even if youngsters resist loving hugs and affectionate cuddles, they may respond enthusiastically to playing tickling games, having their back rubbed, having their hair tousled, or having their shoulders patted. As they become more comfortable with these less emotionally intense kinds of physical contact that give them a greater sense of control, they may be open to more direct and prolonged affectionate contact.

    Caregivers must be sensitive and responsive to toddlers' moods. Besides noting when they are calmer and more relaxed, which may mean they are more receptive to being touched, parents should back off when the toddler expresses an inclination to retreat. Hugging by force is a no-no. Like infants, toddlers signal their desire for emotional distance by looking away. For instance, when being bounced on a hip, toddlers break eye contact when they want the bouncing to end. Next, they try to escape. They may go limp (since the dead weight makes them harder to carry), then try to slide to the ground. And if that doesn't work, they whimper, cry, scream, stiffen, and arch their backs in an effort to free themselves.

    These kinds of physical struggles make toddlers more wary of being held, as well they should. Imagine if someone five times your size, even if it were someone you loved, had you locked in an embrace against your will and wouldn't let go, no matter how much you begged or pleaded! It's not surprising that toddlers with overbearing parents or relatives become increasingly standoffish.

    On the other hand, physically containing an out-of-control toddler by holding her firmly can reassure her immensely. It helps to know that a big person can safely contain those scary emotions that have taken her over.

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