VICTORIA Beckham’s birthday kiss on the lips of her five-year-old daughter have caused ripples on social media. Twitterers expressed disgust as they suggested that Mrs B had crossed some rudimentary and (apparently) generally accepted boundary concerning the dos and don’ts of physical affection.

It turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Soon after publication of the mother and daughter embrace, multitudes rushed to Beckham’s defence by publishing their own photographs of lip-kissing moments between parents and their young children.

The issue of physical affection is a prickly one. What feels comfortable for some folk in some parts of the world, can lead to confusion, alarm or even imprisonment in others. Years ago, when I was travelling around India, I remember being struck by the fact that many of the men there would walk around in groups of three or four, all holding hands together. I had never seen this before but after a few weeks, it seemed quite normal. Interestingly, years later, when grieving the death of an immediate family member, and when neighbours in the village where I lived would literally cross to the other side of the street when they saw me coming, it was an elderly Indian neighbour that I didn’t really know at all, who, one day, rushed across the busy high street and hugged me tight. “There are no words, my sweet,” was all he said.

We were strangers to each other but the courage and empathy he showed me was, I now know, profoundly healing. I learned later that his name was Norman and I still smile when I remember his raw humanity in crossing over to my side of the street.

How many of us have walked along the road, legs wobbly with worry about a sick family member, an unpaid bill, a child who refuses to go to school? And how often have we longed for a friendly arm around our shoulder, a steadying hand to keep us from falling? While words can touch our minds, physical touch speaks loudest when we are in the deepest need.

Our responses to touch and physical expressions of affection are mostly shaped in infancy and early years. Because physical contact is a key element of “prosocial behaviour”, where we learn how to get along with others, form attachments and define appropriate boundaries between self and other, touch is fundamental to the wellbeing and development of babies and young children. Research has shown that skin on skin contact helps premature infants gain weight and thrive. With difficult or traumatic births, it accelerates healing and soothes both baby and mother. In adulthood, physical expressions of affection reduce susceptibility to depression and boost the immune system. Recent research suggests that therapeutic touch and contact is likely to reduce the aggressive behaviours associated with Alzheimer’s.

When the horror of Ceausescu’s tyranny was exposed in Romanian orphanages in 1990, we were confronted with images of babies and young children rocking back and forth in filthy, toy-less cots, their empty eyes gazing from behind the iron bars of their tiny prisons. Some of the children were so desperate for stimulation and movement that they would bang their heads repeatedly on the bars, causing further injury to their brains, already damaged and underdeveloped through lack of touch, the absence of love. Longitudinal studies have been conducted to map the life course of Ceausescu’s little victims, many of them now in their 30s. The research proves that lack of touch and the unavailability of physical affection in these grotesque institutions have caused enduring psychological damage with many of the victims unable to form relationships or function independently in society. For many of these orphans, often the only human touch they experienced was physical abuse from their “carers”, leaving them traumatised, fearful and unable to tolerate any form of physical contact.

We take physical expressions of affection for granted – a peck on the cheek before leaving for work, a kiss goodnight – and don’t appreciate the power and significance of these small acts of love. Nearly half of those aged 70 and over (3.9 million) and who live alone in the UK say the television is their main source of company and 51 per cent of those aged 52 and over and living alone, report feeling lonely. For many, human touch is something they learn to live without but it has a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing. These days, much of what is reported in the media is about inappropriate touching in the form of sexual abuse or paedophile activity. While it is crucial to educate our children on the differences between good and bad touch, appropriate and inappropriate physical contact, we should never underestimate the positive power of a hug. And we should never feel ashamed for needing one.