The practice of skin-to-skin or ‘skinship’. We hear about it often in the first days and weeks with our newborn.
We also hear about the ‘golden hour’ after birth, when we snuggle, uninterrupted, with our freshly born baby.
And really, is there anything better than snuggling a fresh babe?
But as our baby grows and becomes more independent, those snuggles might become shorter and further apart.
Skin-to-skin contact, physical contact, human touch… who doesn’t like the actual physical touch of a loved one?
Skin hunger – what is it and why do we experience it?
Touch is one of the five senses and it’s extremely important. In fact, touch deprivation affects the nervous system; it can cause mental health issues and deeply affect the function of our immune system.
A mentally healthy person is a person whose brain releases as little stress hormone as possible. The stress hormone adrenaline cannot be released in the presence of oxytocin (the love hormone) and vice versa.
Touch is the sense most affected by love and the amount of touch we receive is directly related to the amount of love our brain understands we’re receiving. The more we are touched, the more loved we feel.
When our children are small, we often take our closeness with them for granted. As they get older and human contact with others increases, the less physical affection they receive. Some adults hardly experience touch at all and this ‘touch starvation’ can cause what’s known as ‘skin hunger’.
Many people who experience skin hunger, report craving human contact and research suggests human touch deprivation has more of an impact on us than we realize.
The problem is not just the lack of physical touch but the affection deprivation our brain perceives when we are not experiencing touch.
What is skin hunger?
Skin hunger is the deep desire for physical contact with another person. It might be the longing for a hug or the need for connection that can’t be met with words, texts or even video chat.
Touch is a human being’s first form of communication. Our skin is our largest organ. It’s no surprise regular touch is so vital to our wellbeing.
Our culture, with its emphasis on independence and oversexualisation seems to work against touch. Some even wonder whether it’s okay to cuddle their own children. When we add our overwhelming family schedules, it’s easy to see how modern living can lead to many people, including children, experiencing skin hunger.
Why is touch so important to a mother and baby?
For newborns and infants, touch is vital to their development. It isn’t just calming, it is key to helping their brains grow.
For more information, see BellyBelly’s article Early Touch Is Vital For Your Baby’s Brain Development, Study Finds.
Touch also helps with sensory integration, regulation of stress hormones, and helping babies to form an appropriate attachment that affects the rest of their lives.
Many of us focus on the importance of touch and creating a healthy attachment during the infant and toddler years. We breastfeed, practise babywearing and spend lots of time tickling and snuggling our babies and toddlers.
As our children get older, though, it is easy for them to miss out on receiving adequate touch.
The benefits of touch don’t expire with infancy. We all need it.
- Trigger the release of oxytocin, which encourages bonding and helps regulate stress hormones
- Have important physical health benefits, including improvement in cardiovascular health
- Improve mental wellness and help with depression and anxiety
- Reduce aggression, even among adolescents
- Help your baby become a productive adult
- Benefit your immune system and its ability to fight illness.
We don’t need a study to know touch simply helps most people feel better. Sometimes we get a feeling which can only be relieved with a hug.
Physical touch is most needed when we’re born.
In neonatal intensive care units around the globe, where babies can spend prolonged periods without being touched when they need it, size-appropriate weights are often placed on the babies. It’s a way babies for babies to experience pressure stimulation while they’re not on their parent’s naked chests.
When babies feel skin hunger they start self-soothing behaviors to stop the release of stress hormones. That means a baby is investing energy in self-soothing when it could be used for growing and developing.
Why do so many people experience skin hunger?
One in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues. About 40% of adults say they’re lonely.
We’re more ‘connected’ than ever, through constant digital contact, but it seems we’re more physically disconnected than ever before.
As an online writer, I can connect and interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals in a single day. Even so, I can still feel disconnected. As a wife, and the mother of five, I can be surrounded by family all day, and still experience skin hunger as easily as anyone else.
Why is that?
Sometimes, I can fall into ‘busy-ness’ and not be intentional about making connections. I can go along with our culture’s concerns about making sure children are independent. Or I can become so ‘touched out’ from the ‘giving’ type of touch (breastfeeding, and trying to put a restless baby to sleep), that I don’t seek connective touch with my spouse.
American culture, as a whole, isn’t overly affectionate. Certainly, each person is unique but the culture we’re part of can affect how we interact with those around us – even our own family.
One study found that Parisian teens are more affectionate with their peers, in public, than American teens are. In the US, some schools have even adopted ‘no touch’ policies, due to various worries about liability.
Many of us focus on touch during the newborn period, then quickly move on to worrying about whether our children are becoming too dependent on us. Even if we don’t intentionally withhold physical affection – for example, if our kids push us away as they grow – the reality is we all need touch, even our ‘too cool for us’ teens.
Our busy lifestyles, our rush towards independence, and the cultural norm of not showing affection outside of romance, have all had an impact on the prevalence of skin hunger.
We’ve also institutionalized so much of our lives – from daycare centres to retirement homes. Few of us have the advantage of close contact outside our nuclear families and many of us spend fewer hours than ever before in close contact with our immediate family.
As parents, it’s important we recognize skin hunger and help our children get enough physical affection and connection.
Skin hunger symptoms
We know infants need touch as much as they need nourishment and oxygen. Although older children and adults aren’t likely to show extreme distress or lack of development, as an infant might, the lack of touch can still have a big impact.
A lack of physical connection can lead to anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, aggression and high levels of stress hormones. Some people can even exhibit anti-social behavior when they’re experiencing skin hunger, which makes it even harder to relieve.
Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute says, ‘People who are touch hungry usually present as being depressed individuals. They’re withdrawn; their voice intonation contour is flat’.
There’s a saying: The child who needs love the most will ask for it in the most unloving ways. When it comes to skin hunger, this can be very true.
At times, the biggest tantrum can be ended with a hug. The 10-year-old who’s fighting with his siblings might be in need of more one on one time. The teen who is pushing everyone away might need more connection.
Skin hunger solutions
Humans are social animals. As social creatures, what do we do when we have a biological need and maybe not many friends or close human beings to stimulate our loving pressure receptors?
Simply going out for a daily walk and maybe meeting others might be enough to make you feel better. However, it’s difficult to approach others and ask for a hug.
You could get a full body massage. Even a scalp massage can be a perfect non noxious sensory stimulation which might be the perfect skin stimulation your body was needing.
Attending a cuddle party or paying a therapist to provide skin-to-skin contact for a prolonged period or at regular intervals might also help.
Knowing the benefits of touch for your body, if you didn’t have access to the real thing, would you pay a professional to regulate your heart rate and help you produce the love hormone to keep your anxiety and depression at bay? Would you cuddle a professional cuddler?
How can I prevent skin hunger in my children?
The best thing you can do to prevent skin hunger in your family is to be intentional. Many of us are intentional about practising skin-to-skin with our infants, so it’s essential to have the same intention with other types of connection, as our children grow.
Be conscious about cherishing your children. Choose activities and routines that allow for closeness. You certainly shouldn’t force a child to be affectionate but, by providing opportunities, you can encourage children to choose closeness, appropriate to their comfort level.
Some ways to encourage closeness are:
- Greeting children in the morning rather than relying on alarm clocks to wake them
- Going for walks together
- Having movie nights together on a comfortable couch
- Offering a back scratch or rub
- Reading books together in bed
- Washing and brushing your children’s hair.
Be sure to read 25 Ways To Cherish Your Children While You Can for more ideas on how to remain close with your children.
Physical connection, closeness and affection can almost feel countercultural in our busy modern lifestyles. However, regardless of how society is set up, touch is still a human need as real as the need for food.
Be intentional about meeting that need – for yourself and for your family.