The sense of touch
The tactile sense, or the sense of touch is one of the five better known senses. However, we often take it for granted. Our sense of touch is incredibly complex and we rarely think about how it works or what it helps us to do.
Touch and the somatosensory system
Touch is a major part of the somatosensory system. This is a multisensory system that is involved in feeling sensations located in the body. (That is in contrast to perceiving sensations that originate outside of the body, for example, hearing sounds, or seeing objects.) The somatosensory system incorporates many forms of sensory data.
Tactile touch is feeling things that touch our skin. Whereas the oral tactile element of sense is feeling texture in our mouths. Feeling the stretch and relaxation of our muscles as we move relates to vestibular and interoceptive senses. Feeling our internal systems and their needs, such as hunger, relates to interoception. Perceiving the movement of our body and recognising its position relates to the proprioceptive sense.
Somatosensory perceptions are usually divided into 4 parts: cutaneous, or relating to the skin, proprioceptive (body position), kinaesthetic/vestibular (body movement), and nociception (pain, discomfort).
There is overlap, however, for example, when we experience pain through the skin, for example, when touching something very hot.
The purpose of touch sensation
Handling and movement
Our sense of touch helps us to handle things appropriately. For example, it helps us to recognise whether an object is wet, or slippery, and adjust our grasp. It recognises whether things are sharp or prickly, and so need to be handled gently.
It also helps us to detect when we are touching something, and so gives our other senses information. For example, our proprioceptive sense, which deals with where we are in space, and helps us to avoid bumping into things. Brushing past something, or bumping into something helps us to re-evaluate our position and adjust our course.
Our sense of touch helps us to stay safe. The pain in our hand when we touch something hot creates a reflexive motion to jerk away based on our sensory input. Likewise, our sense of touch tells us when something, like our shoe is rubbing, or when we have a splinter. This helps us to make a change to protect our body from injury or infection.
Touch, hormones and bonding
Touch is also linked to hormones and body. This is particularly touching people or animals, known as social touch. When we hug, or touch other people in a way that we are comfortable with, our body releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone. This promotes bonding and attachment and is very important in babies. This is one of the reasons that skin to skin contact is helpful for bonding with babies, and is one of the benefits of carrying, whether in arms or in slings.
As with all senses everyone has a different level of sensitivity. So, some people experience much more intense touch perception than others. Those who have very high sensitivity are known as hypersensitive. Other people, however, have lower levels of touch sensitivity and are known as hyposensitive.
Touch and regulation
Similarly, everyone has their own comfort zone, or zone of regulation when it comes to touch. Regulating our sensory input involves managing our environment and experiences to keep us within our comfort zone. This may mean avoiding certain touch sensations, or seeking certain sensations.
People who experience tactile input more intensely or who have a low need for tactile input, avoid stimulation and may:
- Avoid being picked up and carried
- Stand further away from people than is natural
- Have strong preferences in clothing
- Hate seams and labels in clothing
- Avoid touching certain surfaces or objects (won’t on a carpet, or touch clay)
- Finds grooming stressful
- Be a picky eater
- “over-react” to minor scrapes
- Be excessively ticklish
- Hate the rain
- Wash their hands excessively or hate washing hands.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and simply represents the types of things that can be seen.
People who experience tactile input less intensely may:
- Not notice minor injuries until pointed out
- Pick up hot food without a reaction
- Not notice having mud, food etc on their hands and face
- Not notice their clothes are too tight, or twisted
- Choose tight fitting clothes for sensory input
- Display tactile sensory seeking behaviours as described below.
Sensory seeking behaviours
People who have a high need for tactile input, crave touch stimulation, such as:
- Fiddling with and twirling hair, clothes, objects, materials
- Stroking materials in hands or particularly on their face
- Rubbing their hands together, twisting fingers
- Rubbing their heads
- Body-focused repetitive behaviours: pulling out hair, picking skin, scratching, nail biting
Touch sensory 'issues'
Clothing and "sensory issues": not just touch
Clothing is a key area where parents tend to notice sensory issues. Children may be very resistant to wearing certain items of clothing, or become very attaching to a particular outfit. This may be to do with a sensory preference. Touch plays a part in clothing sensitivity, and the feel of the fabric, the construction of the garment and how seams, hems and labels feel can all play a part. So too can the level of pressure the clothing provides. Snug stretchy clothes can provide even pressure on the body and stimulate the proprioceptive sense. Some people like this sensation and will often choose clothing such as leggings or fitted t shirts, others dislike the sensation and prefer loose clothing.
Waistbands can be a particular issue. Even elasticated waistbands can cause abdominal pressure. This may be uncomfortable for some people.
It can be helpful to identify common features of the clothing that you, or your child likes and dislikes if you/they have strong sensory preferences relating to clothes.
Tactile defensiveness is one name for touch hypersensitivity that causes distress. This is because high levels of sensory perception make overstimulation a frequent occurrence when people are not able to regulate their sense of touch well. Touch input can be interpreted as threats, which results in tactile sensations causing a threat response and releasing cortisol into the system. This result in high levels of stress, distractibility, irritability, meltdowns and other symptoms of overwhelm and disregulation.
Using the sense of touch
Talking about touch
Having fun with touch
Exploring textures: look at how babies and children explore the world. They touch everything and put things in their mouths too. We get a lot of information from touch, and different information from feeling things with our mouths. I am not suggesting you start licking rocks on a walk! However, touching things, and thinking about how they feeling: the roughness of tree bark, the texture of different leaves, rough bricks, smooth bricks, the warmth of a wall that’s been in the afternoon sun. Mindfully explore things using your sense of touch.
Handling objects, and exploring them is linked to learning, and gives us a huge amount more sensory data than simply looking at them. Find out more about handing, and learning in our object play fact file.
Treasure basket article great info on tactile sensory play
Calming and touch
There are 3 elements will we consider to touch and calming:
- Removing distractions and discomforts
- Providing comfort and soothing textures
- Social touch: your presence and sleep
1. If you are trying to promote calm remove anything that may be causing disregulation. Make sure your bedsheets a smooth, pyjamas aren’t twisted and there are no rough labels. Are you or your child in well fitting clothes, if your baby has grown their cosy sleep suit may be pulling on their toes, or feeling cramped.
2 What feels good to you? My 5 year old loves a teddy fleece blanket, but I can’t stand the synthetic feel on my skin whilst I sleep. I prefer a woven cotton throw and a heavy cotton blanket for weight and pressure.
Some babies or young children have taggy blankets and love to rub the smooth silky tags as they settle to sleep.
Ensure anything you add to a sleep space is safe to sleep with, especially for babies. Follow infant safe sleep guidelines to reduce risks during sleep.
3. Oxytocin is released best when we are relaxed, and its release also helps promote relaxation. So increasing oxytocin is helpful for sleep! At CalmFamily, we talk about oxytocin and loving touch. Hugging, kissing, sitting close to each other, carrying in slings, rocking a tired baby, massage: anything that promotes skin to skin contact helps release oxytocin.
This helps us feel calm, and safe, which are both important when getting to sleep. When babies or children wake up and cry for or come to find you in the night, it is because you are what they need to help them to feel safe and to settle back to sleep.