Practise skin to skin! We hear it often in those 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 be shorter and further apart.
Skin Hunger – What Is It And Why Do We Experience It?
When our children are small, we often take our closeness with them for granted, but the older they get, the less physical affection they receive.
As a result, many people experience skin hunger, and research suggests it has more of an impact on us than we realise.
What Is Skin Hunger?
Whether or not we are familiar with the term, most of us have experienced skin hunger. We might have known it at one particular point in our lives, or perhaps it’s something we feel often.
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 touch is so vital to our wellbeing.
Our culture, however, with its emphasis on independence, and oversexualisation (some wonder if it’s even okay to cuddle their children) seems to work against touch. When we add our overwhelming family schedules, modern living can lead to many people, including children, experiencing skin hunger.
Why Is Touch So Important?
For newborns and infants, touch is vital to their development. It isn’t just calming, it is key to helping their brains grow.
Touch also helps with sensory integration, regulating stress hormones, and helping babies to form an appropriate attachment which 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.
And 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 (and that feeling is skin hunger).
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 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 institutionalised so much of our lives – from daycare centres through 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 recognise skin hunger, and help our children get enough physical affection and connection.
What Are The Signs Of Skin Hunger?
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, lack of touch can still have a big impact.
A lack of physical connection can lead to anxiety, insomnia, aggression, and high levels of stress hormones. Some people can even exhibit anti-social behaviour when they’re experiencing skin hunger, which can make 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.
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 important 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 if they’re comfortable.
Some ways to encourage closeness include:
- 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 their 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.