Can a Lack of Physical Contact Impair Cognitive Development?


There are various approaches to parenting. Some parents constantly coo and cradle their babies, always rushing to their sides at the slightest indication of discomfort or unhappiness. In other cases, parents allow their children to "self soothe" leaving them to cry their eyes out for hours on end without ever going to comfort them. Studies have shown that in extreme cases, the parents who take the wrong approach could potentially cause their children detrimental cognitive damage. 

So, which is the best approach? Many believe that the "self soothing" mechanism will teach children to be more independent and emotionally secure. However, studies have shown that physical contact is imperative to raising secure, independent and socially equipped children.

What does physical contact have to do with the formation of social skills and personality, you might ask? Physical contact is what ensures secure attachment in children. Attachment is the relationship that children develop with the primary caregiver in their lives. A securely attached child feels comfortable exploring and engaging with others as long as their primary caregiver is close by. There are two extreme cases of insecure attachment. In one case the child is very clingy and has severe stranger anxiety. In the other case, the child is disconnected from the caregiver, does not look to them for comfort, and is un-reactive to the presence of strangers.


The Harlow Monkey Studies prove that children are attached to their caregivers because of physical contact, not because they provide them with nourishment, as many once believed. When monkeys were given the choice between a wire dummy caregiver with food, and a soft, comfortable dummy caregiver without food, they chose the caregiver that provided them with soothing physical contact.

More recent studies show that in extreme cases, such as orphanages where children lack attachment completely, cognitive damage as severe as mental retardation can occur. In Romanian orphanages in the 1980's children were left alone in their cribs for hours on end with no physical contact. These children lacked a primary caregiver, leaving them without a way of forming an attachment to anyone. This resulted in emotional instability and cognitive damage.

On September 13th Science Magazine reported the discovery of more in depth explanations for cognitive damage in children who lack attachment, or any social contact at all. Observational studies have shown that isolated children have reduced white matter and slower neural connections. 

These results were then further explored with an <a href="http://">experimental study using mice</a>. The mice were split into three groups: one group raised with one mouse per cage, one group raised with four mice per cage, and another raised in an "enriched" environment with eight mice per cage and various toys to play with.

When the groups were merged after four weeks, the mice raised with four or more companions spent 80% of their time engaging and playing with other mice. The latter did not interact with the other mice. The mice raised in isolation also performed significantly worse on cognitive tests compared with the other groups. The oligodendrocytes in the brains of the isolated mice proved to have stunted their growth, as well.  

These experiments led scientists to conclude that, "oligodendrocytes require social interaction to develop properly, and that failure to receive that stimulation results in defective brain function."  

Parents underestimate the power they have over the development of their children. Affection and physical contact are as essential to a child's brain development as food and water are to their survival.




This is really interesting. I can infer why lack of physical contact at early stages of life may effect social skills and self security in the future, but I never imagined it would go as far as to cause mental retardation or other cognitive disabilities. Im just a little confused about a few of the points... are the researchers behind this theory using social interaction, parental/care giver physical contact, and soft and fun inanimate objects all interchangeably or are there three seperate studies being discussed? Its just making me think- if the orphaned children in Romania, for example, had toys to play with but no physical contact, would they be better socially and cognitively than with out the toys? Or would they still be socially and cognitively impaired because they had no established relationship with a primary care giver?

also, If you wouldnt mind, what are "the oligodendrocytes in brains" and "white matter"?

super cool blog

I thought this blog was particularly interesting thanks to the increasing popularity of attachment parenting amongst celebrities. Mayim Bialik of Blossom fame even published a book about her experience with attachment parenting, which includes "natural birth, breastfeeding, sleeping with your baby and gentle discipline". Carrying one's baby close to the body in a sling is also a popular practice in this approach. Of course, this trendy parenting approach also begs the question how much contact is too much contact? Or is too much contact impossible? Physical contact is without a doubt critical to a child's development, but does constant contact lead to negative traits in a child? I think that would be a really interesting follow-up blog topic.

White matter consists of myelinated nerve fibers, and in this case the white matter in the pre frontal cortex is what is being effected. The white matter in the prefrontal cortex is linked with decision making, memory and social skills. Oligodendrocytes are a type of brain cells that provides support and insulates the axons in the central nervous system. They play a large role in the function of impulses and provide a supporting role in neurons.

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