“Hi, I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!”
Remember the little snowman from “Frozen”, who, contrary to his cold exterior, admits freely that he loves the feeling that a warm hug gives? Hugging comes naturally to most of us, and is one of the things that we have all missed so much in the pandemic. But do you know why hugs are important and the science behind their role in child development?
Research on hugs is not as bounteous as we might expect, perhaps because we feel it’s a natural thing that most of us do without thinking. However, recent research is now deepening our understanding of the role of hugs in child development, and early years practitioners need to be aware of this and use it in a practical way.
We all know how comforting it is to receive a hug, especially if we are upset or are physically hurt. Having someone else take some of the strain, and physically wrap you up in a safe, warm genuine hug is like nothing else. Our stresses melt away and somehow, it calms our mood and puts us into a better state of mind. But researchers have recently revealed that children who get more hugs, also have more developed brains, compared to children who receive fewer hugs.
As long ago as the 1950s, John Bowlby’s research pointed to the importance of a mother’s touch, and his experiments were fundamental in forming his theories of attachment, showing the negative effects that being deprived of physical affection can bring.
Touch is one of the first senses we use. Our sense of smell, taste, sight, and hearing function, but we need time to understand what the inputs mean for us, for example recognising the difference between our mother and a stranger. However, the sense of touch can have a calming influence from birth.
In an article on the benefits of hugging1, Dr Susan Crowe, an obstetrician from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, explained that as soon as it is physically safe for the mother and baby following birth, doctors and midwives place the baby on the mother’s chest, often with skin-to-skin contact, guiding the baby towards the breast to start the process of breastfeeding. However, regardless of whether breastfeeding is possible at this stage, the fact that the baby is being held by its mother within the first hour, can help normalise the baby’s body temperature, heartbeat and breathing pattern. The mother’s body releases hormones that cause more relaxation for her too after the exertions of birth.
This is the beginning of parental bonding and is not confined to the mother. If other partners hold the baby at this time, then their bonding with the infant starts too. The article also explains some of the benefits of infant massage for babies and how this can bring a wide range of benefits including:1
- Better sleep patterns for the baby
- Baby appears more aware of being loved, secure, and accepted
- Improved digestion and bowel movements
- Babies demonstrate more comfort by less fussy behaviour
- Weight gain improves
- Mother and baby appear more relaxed
- Neurological function in babies is improved
Another review published on PubMed, outlining the results from various studies, showed that children in orphanages who had been deprived of positive touch, had detrimental effects, but when they received only 20 minutes of daily tactile stimulation, over 10 weeks, they increased their developmental scores.3 Premature babies who had their limbs stroked and mild limb movement, gained weight, had longer alertness, and more mobility. After one year, these premature infants scored high on growth and motor skills.4
One reason that researchers believe that positive touch and hugs are beneficial is to do with the release of oxytocin, which is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in the hypothalamus and released from our pituitary gland. Oxytocin is responsible for the bonding between mother and baby. During breastfeeding, orgasm, and hugs, the levels of oxytocin rise leading to participants feeling trust, a maternal instinct and care, and it has sometimes been dubbed the ‘love’ hormone. Oxytocin has complex physiological interactions, and other physical effects in the body (such as aiding contractions in labour), but in the brain, is now thought to have beneficial effects on our emotional and social behaviours, affecting in some way, who we trust and see as safe. So hugging children can help them to feel safe and cared for by people they trust.5-11
This link between development and positive touch sensations extends into early childhood too, and children who have less tactile contact with their mother (either through a touch aversion on the part of the mother or the child), can lead to a condition known as ‘failure to thrive’ or FTT.12 However, when the children receive more hugs and positive touch, (which could be through interactions during play sessions such as a hand on an arm or a touch on a shoulder), the children can move from having FTT to being healthy and thriving, very quickly. Again, this is thought to be a result of the complex interactions of oxytocin which can also stimulate the release of growth hormones.
As well as affecting physical development, children’s emotional development is affected by hugs too as hugging has been shown to stop tantrums13-14. Many adults think that hugging a child having a tantrum will reinforce unwanted behaviour but as we understand the reasons behind children’s emotional outbursts better, and are beginning to see them as communication, this view is being challenged.
Children who are hugged when they are upset and cannot express their feelings, need reassurance and to feel safe again. A hug can be the quickest way to calm their fears and help them regain a balance in their emotions that they have not yet learned to control in other ways. Outbursts and temper tantrums are a sign that the child is stressed, which releases cortisol into the body. Too much cortisol has negative implications but a hug in difficult times can trigger the release of oxytocin, to counteract this. A hug will also teach them that you are there as a trusted adult, so can help them develop trust and resilience, knowing that ultimately ‘everything will be alright’.
So appropriate hugging is important in child development and can really make a difference to a child’s physical and emotional development.
- The benefits of touch for babies and parents. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2013/09/the-benefits-of-touch-for-babies-parents.html
- Origins of attachment theory. https://cmapspublic2.ihmc.us/rid=1LQX400NM-RBVKH9-1KL6/the%20origins%20of%20attachment%20theory%20john%20bowlby%20and_mary_ainsworth.pdf
- Casler L. The effects of extra tactile stimulation on a group of institutionalized infants. Genet Psychol Monogr. 1965;71:137-175. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14279691
- Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research: A Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844909/
- Smith AS, Wang Z. Salubrious effects of oxytocin on social stress-induced deficits. Hormones and Behavior. Published online March 2012:320-330. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.11.010
- Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing]. Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2005;51(1):57-80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15834840
- Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness. Psychol Sci. Published online December 19, 2014:135-147. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4323947/
- Saphire-Bernstein S, Way BM, Kim HS, Sherman DK, Taylor SE. Oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is related to psychological resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online September 6, 2011:15118-15122. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113137108
- Buchheim A, Heinrichs M, George C, et al. Oxytocin enhances the experience of attachment security. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Published online October 2009:1417-1422. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.04.002
- Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. Published online June 2005:673-676. doi:10.1038/nature03701
- Role of the Mother’s Touch in Failure to Thrive: A Preliminary Investigation: https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(09)64114-9/fulltext
- The science behind your child’s tantrums. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/15/parenting/kids-tantrums-advice.html
- Infants Show Physiological Responses Specific to Parental Hugs. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589004220301802