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Overly sensitive to TOUCH – Tactile defensiveness.

Overly sensitive to TOUCH – Tactile defensiveness.


                            By Donna Boygle Occupational Therapist.


                                                   Sensory Integration

I wanted to share with you the importance of the tactile system and why it is such a crucial part of child development. If the tactile system is not responding properly then this can affect many aspects of the child’s and families lives.

The system that gets messages about touch from our skin and sends them to the brain to be sorted is called the “TACTILE SYSTEM”. The tactile system is the most primitive sense. Touch perception is one of the first developing senses. It is through the tactile system that a baby first gets information about the world and it is a crucial sense for developing motor skills. If the tactile system is working well it allows the baby to develop feelings of safety and form a bond with their parents/caregivers.

When a baby or child presents with “TACTILE DEFENSIVENESS” their tactile system is not working properly. The messages that go up to the brain from the skin are correct but they are sorted wrongly. Therefore, the child may feel that a light touch on their arm is extremely irritating or even painful. The baby or child may react in a number of ways such as:

  •  Pulling a face.
  • Pulling away from the sensation.
  • Whining or clinging in fright or hitting out.

Think of your response if you accidentally touch something that is boiling hot or painful.

In daily life this may affect your child in many ways they may:

  •  Dislike bath times, hair washing, brushing their teeth or having their nails cut.
  • Dislike certain textures or particular items of their clothing.
  • Dislike crawling or walking on sand or grass and/or dislike bare feet.
  • Avoid being touched particularly their face, hands or feet.
  • Dislike touching anything sticky, slimy or dirty.
  • Dislike certain textures or temperatures of food in the mouth.


 So what can you do to help your child?

  •  Use firm, gentle pressure when touching or holding your child. Try not to use a light tickly touch.
  • A bear hug is excellent. But be sure your child is expecting it.
  • Avoid touching or approaching your child from behind as they won’t be expecting it.
  • Roll your child tightly up in a duvet or towel or make a cushion sandwich – seek advise from an occupational Therapist.
  • Incorporate a range of touch sensations into play, eating and bath times.
  • Soft play activity centres and swimming pools provide children with deep pressure tactile input. (I will discuss the importance of deep pressure in future bloggs).
  • “Round and round the garden like a teddy bear song” – but use firm but gentle pressure to hold the child’s hand palm up – use firm touch to circle your finger round the child’s hand and up their arm.
  • Introduce “messy play” gradually as your child response to the activities. Try to use firm pressure when introducing sensations. For example it would be better to bury a child’s foot in the sand rather than sprinkle sand on it.


It is important to watch for signs of over stimulation and stop if necessary. Demonstrate sensations on yourself and DO NOT FORCE participation.


Poor tactile discrimination may also contribute to an impaired awareness of self that is “body scheme” and so the child may be cautious with movement or even avoid movement; they may bump into objects and people and or be uncoordinated in their movements.

So the tactile system is extremely important and lays the foundation for many other developmental milestones.

If you are concern about your Child’s tactile system then you can contact the Occupational Therapist to discuss at the Therapy life centre.






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