The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development

Abstract: One of the primary means of communicating with a baby is through touch. Nurturing physical touch promotes healthy physiological development in social mammals, including humans. Physiology influences wellbeing and psychosocial functioning. The purpose of this paper is to explore the connections among early life positive and negative touch and wellbeing and sociomoral development. In study 1, mothers of preschoolers (n = 156) reported their attitudes toward positive/negative touch and on their children’s wellbeing and sociomoral outcomes, illustrating moderate to strong positive correlations between positive touch attitudes and children’s sociomoral capacities and orientations and negative correlations with psychopathology. In study 2, we used an existing longitudinal dataset, with at-risk mothers (n = 682) and their children to test touch effects on moral capacities and social behaviors in early life. Results demonstrated moderate to strong relationships between positive/negative touch and concurrent child behavioral regulation and positive correlations between low corporal punishment and child sociomoral outcomes. In a third study with adults (n = 607), we found significant mediation processes connecting retrospective reports of childhood touch to adult moral orientation through attachment security, mental health, and moral capacities. In general across studies, more affectionate touch and less punishing touch were positively associated with wellbeing and development of moral capacities and engaged moral orientation.

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Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, 32:16 (open access).