Dr.Shivani Salil

Little children and their vulnerability is something so obvious that we accept it as a default and hardly ever think of probing the reasons for it. Beyond the obvious thing, that they are…..well little and easy to overpower and may not be good in expressing their problem, there is a scientific basis to it. If we make an effort to understand that, it might give us an insight into how to deal with it better.

Little babies are like sponges and absorb everything…smells, sounds, touch…literally everything! But of all the senses, it is the tactile sensation that has a major role to play.

Whereas sight develops over six months, smells and sound are absorbed, the first sense to develop is touch. It comes into play as early as the 8th week of gestation. As the circuitry of nerves gets laid down, over many weeks, a baby begins to feel things even while in the womb. Armed with this sense of touch, in utero the babies explore their tiny world. Which means as they float around they feel the uterine lining, touch their faces and in general hop around.

In the first few months after birth, since they cannot move around, we tend to undermine the importance of touch. At this point, it is more pertinent than ever because for them adults are the only reference for tactile stimulation. Though most adults reflexively cuddle and coo to a child but if done on a conscious level, it has immeasurable benefits. In fact, research has put this observation to good use. Touch therapy is being used widely for better development of premature babies. Popularly known as Kangaroo care, it replicates a womb like feeling for the child. The child is laid bare on the chest of the parent/ care giver, which ensures a skin to skin contact. This has been proven to help a premature baby leave the confines of NICU faster and achieve milestones earlier than those preemies who did not receive this care. It visibly relaxes them, regulates their body temperature and respiration rate as well.

It has been hypothesized that a little baby’s skin is supposed to be so sensitive, it picks up even the slightest vibration that our body emits just before we actually touch them. Which is the good because anyway we pick them up ever so gently and massage the baby with a soft touch. However most of us would have noticed that if someone who is scared to pick them and approaches them gingerly, the baby also becomes wary, bristles up and often ends up howling. It is obvious that they sense that fear in us.

As they become mobile, they explore the larger world and the primary means to do that job is touch. Every touch is registered as a mental image which explains why certain objects comfort them while others are unpleasant. A lot of companies are reaping benefits by manufacturing their products based on this research.

If touch is so important, it needs to be driven in that the little babies have to be necessarily cuddled and hugged. It may sound like a chore because we feel we do it anyway. But a conscious effort definitely fetches better rewards. To ensure a skin to skin contact, just lay your hand on a sleeping baby and feel how she relaxes. Like the purr of a cat, it is something you can only experience and not describe.

As these toddlers grow up surrounded with the warmth of such friendly touch, it comes as a shock when confronted with a “bad touch”. Especially because it comes from people whom they have been entrusted to or are implicitly trusted upon by the parents. They do not know what hit them because they are naïve to this experience. Some react to it violently while others recede into a shell. Any oddity in behavior, howsoever insignificant, should raise the parents’ antennae. Probe as gently as possible and pay attention. Sometimes the child IS trying to express, it’s us who aren’t listening. If the child can talk create an environment where she can express and trust them. If it’s a child who cannot or does not want to express verbally, will resort to other cues. Unless we are alert, we’ll probably miss it.

Since kids understand touch, it is easier to teach them to distinguish it. If we ask them to visualize the touch from a loved one, it’s very relatable to them. Building on that, we can ask them to imagine what the reverse of that will feel like? They will recoil at the thought and feel disgusted. Ask them to remember this difference. Remind them if required. That makes our job a wee bit easier. The children who have caring adults around them blossom like the sunflowers, always facing the sun.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have never known the warmth and affection of a gentle touch. They have absolutely no reference point to build the concept of love. If they end up in the wrong hands, they are the most vulnerable lot and often at the receiving end of habitual abuse. The sadder part is not the abuse but the unawareness that something is wrong.

These marginalized children are harder to reach out. A concerted effort is required to uplift them. In theory, there are foster homes, remand homes and correctional facilities built for this purpose. But often they do more harm than good. These places are often a haven for abuse of all kinds. If we see the bigger picture, such traumatized children often grow up into troubled teens and adults. What’s worse is that they often take to crime and perpetuate the hatred by resorting to the child abuse that they were once a victim of. It is a vicious cycle that plagues our society. What these offenders need is our empathy and support that can help in a more rounded up rehabilitation process.

An ideal world would be where children can blossom without fear. Unfortunately, that is not true. So, we either live in fear and imprison ourselves or face it to be free forever from it. The best we can do is start and end a day with hugs and kind words. Lend a sympathetic ear when needed and at the same time step back when they spread their wings so they can grow. Simple as it may sound, its magic will go a long way in ensuring a robust emotional health of your child.