The sense of touch is also known as the tactile sense. We receive tactile information all over our body, but especially through the mouth, hands, and feet. For your little one, it’s one of the first ways he learns about himself and the world. Before we explore how it develops, let’s take a look at how it helps us function.
The Roles of The Tactile Sense
Our tactile sense helps us:
- Navigate our surroundings — We know how to walk on sand, rocks, or a flat floor because of what we feel through our feet. If we are in a crowd, we consistently adjust our position based on feeling ourselves come into contact with others.
- Identify objects by the way they feel — Without looking, you can reach into your bag, rummage around, and pull out a pen based on its texture, shape, and size.
- Register temperature — You put on a sweater when the wind picks up, or pull a spoonful of too-hot soup away from your mouth before burning your tongue.
- Determine light vs. deep pressure — You know it’s time to buy new pants because the ones you have feel too tight. You form an idea about someone’s personality by the firmness of their handshake.
- Feel pain — Being able to register pain helps us avoid danger and take care of ourselves when we get hurt.
How the Tactile Sense Develops
Your baby’s sense of touch begins to develop when he’s still in the womb—around week 7. As soon as he’s born, your little one starts learning about himself and the world through his ultra-sensitive tactile sense. That’s why holding him skin-to-skin or giving him a massage is so powerful. Every time he comes into contact with something, whether he’s on his tummy on a playmate or snuggled in your arms, he learns about his body, his surroundings, and human connection.
Your newborn’s sense of touch is also the reason he turns his head and makes sucking movements if something brushes his cheek or lips. Known as the “rooting reflex,” this is his way of finding the breast or bottle before he can see well enough to find it with his eyes.
By the time he’s 6 months old, a minute doesn’t go by that your baby isn’t grabbing something or putting it in his mouth. This helps him learn concepts like texture, shape, size, and temperature. Safely grabbing and mouthing things is an important part of his development, so shelf your dangly earrings and triple-check your babyproofing!
When he graduates to crawling, cruising, and walking, he takes in tons of information through his hands and feet that helps him learn how to navigate his surroundings. He learns, for example, that he can walk more quickly on a carpet than a hard floor, because his feet have a better grip.
As your baby grows into toddlerhood, you will notice that he stops putting things in his mouth and becomes more familiar and comfortable with various sensations. This is a sign of healthy sensory development. If he seems overly sensitive to touch (grabs at his clothes as if they’re uncomfortable, refuses to eat certain food textures, doesn’t like to be touched) or under sensitive (craves tight hugs, doesn’t appear to feel pain) a pediatric occupational therapist can offer guidance.
How to Support Your Child’s Tactile Development
Healthy tactile development is all about becoming sensitized to a world full of sensations. As a parent or caregiver, you can nurture this by gently exposing your little one to a variety of tactile information. In the sensory category of our BabySparks app you can find dozens of activities for this!