Sometimes the most special moments in parenting are the spontaneous tickle fights. They come out of nowhere. It's not something you plan or put on the calendar, but you're just causally hanging out with your kid and suddenly... you're tickling each other. Or you're sitting with your baby, who is adorably looking up at you and you reach under their armpits to give them a good tickle and are rewarded with fabulous baby laughter. But why do kids like being tickled so much? What is it about the game that makes it so much fun for parents and children?
The reason why some people, children especially, like being tickled is a combination of things, including the excitement, spontaneity, and the way your brain reacts to the sensation. The dictionary definition of “tickle” is “lightly touch or prod (a person or a part of the body) in a way that causes itching and often laughter.” When someone tickles you, according to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, two areas of the brain respond to the tickling: the somatosensory cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are both areas of the brain that register pleasure.
The great thing about the tickling interaction is that it's a way to connect with your kids that doesn't cost anything, can be done almost anywhere, and doesn't require any equipment or preparation. What an easy way to bond with your child!
It's An Avenue Of Communication
Tickling is a way of communicating without actually talking. University of Maryland neuroscientist Robert Provine said that tickling is one of the first methods of communication between mother and child. He notes, “You have the mother and baby engaged in this kind of primal, neurologically programmed interaction.”
It's Interactive Play
You can't tickle yourself. It's just physically impossible. Your body will know that the stimulus is coming and block a reaction. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London did studies that showed that when you move, the cerebellum, or part of the brain involved in monitoring movement, can predict sensations. If someone else were to tickle you, you wouldn't anticipate it — therefore it's impossible to tickle yourself, reported Scientific American, and you need someone else for the game.
It Teaches Them They Are A Separate Self
Infants do not understand the separation of themselves and their mothers. “When you look at the evolution of the development of tickle, you’re also looking at the evolution of the development of self,” Dr. Provine says. Babies can't articulate this, but because they can't tickle themselves, the stimulation must be coming from somewhere else. If a hand is rubbing his foot or his belly, he can recognize that this is something "other." Dr. Provine says it's a way to establish that there is a "we" in the relationship.
It's All About The Attention And Affection
When mom or dad is tickling you, their entire focus is on you and making you laugh. They are looking right in your eyes and have one goal in mind — your happiness. Who wouldn't want that?
As Erin Leyba, LCSW, Ph.D., author of the book Joyful Parenting, said in Psychology Today, "In the hustle bustle of stressful family life, it can be great to spend special one-on-one time with each child. Kids adore the attention, the fun, and the indulgence of having one parent all to themselves." Parents love it, too. It's the perfect antidote to all the running around and stress that parenting can bring.
It Reduces Fear
Your child's body's reaction to tickling activates the part of our brain that anticipates pain, according to scientists at the University of Tuebingen in Germany. This is why when you go to tickle your child, their first reaction may be to stop you (either by recoiling or taking a swing at your hand). Psychology Today noted that if you keep tickling though, kids may build up defenses that will allow their bodies to deal with the fear, as a Japanese study on rats showed.
It Just Feels Good
Laughter feels great. Physiologically, it can increase the amount of oxygen you take in, stimulate circulation, and relax your muscles, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also increases the amount of endorphins that are released by your brain, giving you a relaxed, happy feeling.
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