The Role of Affectionate Caregiver Touch in Early Neurodevelopment and Parent-Infant Interactional Synchrony.
Though rarely included in studies of parent-infant interactions, affectionate touch plays a unique and vital role in infant development. Previous studies in human and rodent models have established that early and consistent affectionate touch from a caregiver confers wide-ranging and holistic benefits for infant psychosocial and neurophysiological development. We begin with an introduction to the neurophysiological pathways for the positive effects of touch. Then, we provide a brief review of how affectionate touch tunes the development of infant somatosensory, autonomic (stress regulation), and immune systems. Affective touch also plays a foundational role in the establishment of social affiliative bonds and early psychosocial behavior. These touch-related bonding effects are known to be mediated primarily by the oxytocin system, but touch also activates mesocorticolimbic dopamine and endogenous opioid systems which aid the development of social cognitive processes such as social learning and reward processing. We conclude by proposing a unique role for affectionate touch as an essential pathway to establishing and maintaining parent-infant interactional synchrony at behavioral and neural levels. The limitations of the current understanding of affectionate touch in infant development point to fruitful avenues for future research.
Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00005/2)