Hugging makes us feel good, no doubt.
When we are sad or disappointed, a big warm hug can alleviate some of the pain.
When we are happy, we want to share the joy by giving others a bear hug. So we know that hugs are good.
But there are other benefits besides feeling warm and fuzzy.
Why do babies, toddlers and kids like being held or hugged so much?
Turns out there are some very good scientific reasons why we should all hug our kids more. In fact, children hugging is essential for a child’s healthy growth and development.
1. The Life Saving Hug
In 1995, a pair of twins, Kyrie and Brielle Jackson, were born 12 weeks premature weighing merely 2 lbs.
Kyrie started to put on weight and thrive after birth but Brielle was not doing so well. She cried a lot, leaving her gasping for air and turning blue-faced. Her heart rate soared and went into critical condition.
In those days, hospital policy required the twins to be placed in separate incubators to reduce the risk of cross-infection.
But when the NICU nurse had tried everything but still could not calm her down, she placed Brielle next to Kyrie in the same incubator with the parents’ permission.
Almost immediately, Brielle snuggled up to Kyrie, and she began to calm down. Her frighteningly low blood-oxygen level rose within minutes. As she dozed, Kyrie put her stick-thin arm around Brielle. Brielle’s heart rate started to stabilize and her body temperature rose to normal.
This miraculous “Rescuing Hug” has since changed the practice of infant medicine in the United States.
Multiple-birth preemies are now routinely co-bedded. Skin-to-skin contact or kangaroo care is used by parents and caretakers to stabilize preterm infants.
Besides the testament of these iconic twins, studies also show that hospitalized preemies gain more weight, have shorter hospital stay and mature faster neuro-behaviorally when they are touched and given tactile stimulation1,2.
The positive effects are also persistent when the babies are retested 8 and 12 months after treatment.
2. Children Hugging Is Essential To Growth
Premature babies are not the only ones who can benefit from hugging.
A young child’s brain needs a lot of stimulation in order to grow and develop. Physical touch is one of the most important stimulation that can facilitate healthy child development ((The importance of touch in development. By Evan L Ardiel, MSc and Catharine H Rankin, PhD)).
Infants in Eastern European orphanages had limited human contact. They usually suffered from impaired growth and cognitive development.3.
Researchers found that when institutionalized infants received an additional 20 min of tactile stimulation (touch) per day for 10 weeks, they subsequently scored higher on developmental assessments4.
Due to ethical reasons, it is impossible to conduct a cause-and-effect study to understand the exact impact of touch or hugging in young children. We can only deduce the importance of physical touch by studying children who grew up in bleak situations such as the European orphans. However, animal studies can shed some light on this issue.
In a study by Duke University, researchers have found that the lack of maternal stimulation in rat pups can lead to decrease in the pups’ growth, similar to human children who fail to thrive5.
Conversely, rat pups that have more maternal touch stimulation weigh more, learn faster, have better memory, have better immunity and exhibit more socially engaging behavior. They are also less fearful and more attentive to their own offspring.
3. Regulate Emotion
Nothing can calm my tantrum throwing 3 year old faster than a big hug from Mommy.
A mother can soothe a distressed child just by picking him up and the child can resume crying if the mother puts him down.
Why is that?
Emotion regulation works a little bit like a car. A car has a gas pedal and a brake, each works separately to control the car’s speed. In our nervous system, the arousal branch6 (gas pedal) and the calming branch7 (brake) each works separately to regulate our emotion.
When a kid cries intensely or throws a temper tantrum, the arousal branch is overactive while the calming branch is underactive.
Imagine driving while pressing the gas pedal all the way to the floor and not applying brake.
Children in tantrum is exactly like a runaway car. The level of stress hormone8 in the blood increases raising heart rate, tensing muscle, and causing anxiety. At the same time, the calming branch is disengaged.
So hugging essentially takes the foot off the gas pedal.
Not only that, hugging also steps on the brake. It activates the calming branch to put a stop to the child’s emotional arousal13.
So hugging works on both branches of our emotion regulation system.
This is why it is so effective in regulating a child’s runaway emotion and stopping melt-downs.
Many parents worry that giving a tantrum-throwing child a hug is rewarding bad behavior with attention. It is not.
Let’s say your child disobeys you and drives a runaway car. He has no way to stop because the gas pedal is stuck and the brake is broken. Do you let it crash because you don’t want to reward him with attention?
If it were me, I would stop the car to rescue him first and lecture him later.
It’s the same for hugging a distressed child. You are helping him avoid an emotional crash. This is not rewarding the tantrum.
Save first. Teach later.
Saving him from emotional dysregulation is not just a one-time help. What you’re doing is also teaching him how to regulate himself.
Over time, he will learn to do it without your help14.
It’s like a toddler learning to walk. We hold her hands at the beginning so she doesn’t fall. Eventually, her muscles will be strong enough for her to stand on her own.
Holding your child’s hands when she’s learning to walk is not rewarding her failure to walk. You are giving her support while she learns to walk.
Hugging a distressed child during a meltdown is not rewarding his bad behavior. You are giving him support while he learns to regulate his emotion.
4. Boost Health
At birth, children’s nervous systems are not mature enough to regulate big emotions by themselves.
During distress, high level of cortisol is released circulating through the body and the brain. When left for a prolonged period of time due to inability to regulate, this toxic level of stress hormone will impact the child’s health, both physically and mentally.
Studies show that excessive exposure to stress hormone can compromise the child’s immune system and affect memory and verbal reasoning later in life15‘16. It can also lead to depression when the child grows up.17.
The release of oxytocin triggered by hugging can lower the level of stress hormone, preventing harmful impacts. Oxytocin can also help strengthen the child’s immune system resulting in better health18.
Hugging is not only good for the child, but it’s also good for the parents.
When parents are hugging the child, the child is applying tactile stimulation (touch) to the parents.
Parents will benefit from feeling better (oxytocin), being calmer (calming branch activated) and healthier (stronger immunity). Having a lower level of cortisol will also lead to lower blood pressure and healthier hearts19
5. Improve Relationship
It is not hard to imagine that hugging improves parent-child bonding.
Although the results are still preliminary, some studies suggest that hugging (and touch) can increase trust20, reduce fear21‘22 and improve relationship ((Mother‐Infant Skin‐to‐Skin Contact (Kangaroo Care): Theoretical, Clinical, and Empirical Aspects By Feldman, Ruth PhD)).
So, go now. Give your children a big bear hug and show them how much you love them!
Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. By Field TM, Schanberg SM, Scafidi F, Bauer CR, Vega-Lahr N, Garcia R, Nystrom J, Kuhn CM. ↩
Skin-to-skin contact (Kangaroo Care) accelerates autonomic and neurobehavioural maturation in preterm infants. By Ruth Feldman and Arthur I Eidelman ↩
Infants and young children in orphanages: one view from pediatrics and child psychiatry. By Frank DA, Klass PE, Earls F, Eisenberg L ↩
The effects of extra tactile stimulation on a group of institutionalized infants. By Casler, Lawrence ↩
Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing. By [Article in German] Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. ↩
More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. By Light KC, Grewen KM, Amico JA. ↩
Oxytocin buffers cortisol responses to stress in individuals with impaired emotion regulation abilities. By Markus Quirin,, Julius Kuhl, Rainer Düsing ↩
Moderate pressure massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response. By Diego MA, Field T. ↩
Emotion regulation and touch in infants: the role of cholecystokinin and opioids. By Aron Weller, Ruth Feldman ↩
Oxytocin Both Increases Proliferative Response of Peripheral Blood Lymphomonocytes to Phytohemagglutinin and Reverses Immunosuppressive Estrogen Activity. By Antonio Maccio, Clelia Madeddu, Paola Chessa, Filomena Panzone, Paolo Lissoni and Giovanni ↩
Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. By Holt-Lunstad J, Birmingham WA, Light KC. ↩
The effect of intranasal administration of oxytocin on fear recognition. By Fischer-Shofty M, Shamay-Tsoory SG, Harari H, Levkovitz Y. ↩
Embodied Terror Management Interpersonal Touch Alleviates Existential Concerns Among Individuals With Low Self-Esteem. By Sander L. Koole, Mandy Tjew A Sin, Iris K. Schneider ↩