What Really Happens When You Tickle Babies

in News
October 22nd, 2015

Everyone loves to make babies laugh, whether it’s by making funny faces, strange sounds, or tickling their toes. The funny thing is, while we know that younger infants start out with very limited visual capabilities, most of us have assumed that their sense of touch is developed enough to be linked with the visual system. A recent study shows that this is not the case.

Imagine you’re in a room, maybe a few other people, you’re just chilling there, sitting in a nice comfy chair, trying to take in your surroundings when all of a sudden, you feel a tickling sensation on your foot. But the weird thing is, it doesn’t seem like any of your friends came over and tickled your foot. This would be a pretty strange situation, feeling this apparently source-less, isolated tickle. This is what happens with babies.

It seems as though infants live in a world where the only thing they register about touches on the body, is that they occur on the body.  In fact, infants are much more talented than we are at identifying where on the body a touch occurs. For some reason, when an adult crosses their arms or legs, it becomes a lot harder for them to correctly identify the source of the touch. Infants are a lot more accurate when it comes to locating the source of the touch, which in an experiment they showed by moving the foot the experimenter touched. However, this heightened ability goes away at about six months.

What makes this interesting is that it shows us infants have an increased ability to localize a touch on their bodies that fades after only a few months.  This could be a critical period for somatosensory development in infants or an evolutionary adaptation that was probably more useful many generations ago.

Moving away from the realm of speculation, what is definite is that babies cannot associate the person touching them with the touch itself. This may be disappointing for families to hear, or at least for those that believe their babies have a special affinity for their touch. As heartbreaking as it might be, unfortunately they don’t, and any baby’s response to the touch of a person is most likely due to their personal interpretation of the touch or natural instincts.

While this study depressingly reveals that babies aren’t really all the emotionally attached to us when it comes to their physical sensations, it does give us more insight into how the sense of touch develops during the early years.



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