Hugging provides many benefits to people, but it is particularly important in child development. Let’s discover the science behind the benefits of hugging.
Hugging makes us feel good, no doubt.
When we are sad or disappointed, a big warm cuddle can alleviate some of the pain. When we are happy, we want to share the joy by giving others a bear hug. So we intuitively know that hugs are good.
But there are other benefits besides feeling warm and fuzzy.
Turns out there are important scientific reasons why hugs are good for you and your child. A 20 second hug can help your kid grow smarter, healthier, happier, more resilient and closer to you.
Let’s look at the science of hugging.
Benefits of Hugging and the Science Behind Hugs
1. Hugs Help Kids Grow Smarter
Human touches are essential to brain growth.
A young child needs a lot of different sensory stimulation for normal development. Skin contact, or physical touch such as hugging, is one of the most important stimulation required to grow a healthy brain and a strong body1.
In Eastern European orphanages, infants are rarely handled or touched. They often spend 22 to 23 hours of the days in their cribs. Propped bottles are used to feed them and care is routinized with minimal human interaction. These children often face many issues including impaired cognitive development2 and delayed motor skills development3.
In a study published in the Genetic Psychology Monographs, researchers found that institutionalized infants who received hugs for an additional 20 min of tactile stimulation (touch) per day for 10 weeks scored higher in developmental assessments than those who didn’t4. They also found that not all types of touch were beneficial. Only a nurturing touch such as gentle hugging can provide the type of positive stimulation a young brain needs to grow healthily5,6.
2. Hugs Help Kids Grow
Physical contact is also essential to a child’s physical growth.
Physicians have found that when children are deprived of physical contact, their bodies stop growing despite normal intake of nutrients. This condition is called failure-to-thrive.
Failure-to-thrive is a type of growth deficiency. The health of children who suffer from failure-to-thrive can be improved when nurturing touches and hugs are provided7–9.
One of the reasons why hugging is associated with physical growth is that it triggers the release of oxytocin, also known as the love hormone.
This feel-good hormone has many important effects on our bodies. One of them is growth stimulation.
Studies show that hugging can instantly boost the level of oxytocin. When oxytocin is increased, several growth hormones, such as insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1) and nerve growth factor (NGF), are increased as well10. As a result, the nurturing touch of a hug enhances a child’s growth11,12.
3. Hugs Keep Kids Healthy
There are many health benefits of hugging. Hugs can promote our health and help us heal.
Oxytocin, released when hugging, is a hormone that has amazing power and provides many benefits to our bodies.
For example, the increased level of oxytocin can strengthen our immune systems by lowering the plasma levels of thyroid hormones and decreasing inflammation13 causing wounds to heal faster14. Oxytocin also facilitates social support improving the outcomes of a variety of health related conditions.
4. Hugs Stop Temper Tantrums
Hugs are good for a child’s emotional health. Nothing can calm a tantrum-throwing toddler faster than a great big hug from the parent.
Many parents worry that hugging a tantrum-throwing child is rewarding bad behavior with attention. But it is not.
Hugging a child is not the same as giving in (which does encourage bad behavior).
Hugging without giving in is helping a child learn to self- regulate. Regulating one’s emotion is like driving a car. In our body, there are two separate mechanisms that control our emotions. The arousal branch in our nervous system speeds up our emotion, while the calming branch can put a brake to our arousal.
Emotion dysregulation happens the arousal branch is overactive and the calming branch is underactive. That means the gas pedal is pressed all the way down while the brake is broken. So, when a child cries intensely, they are driving an emotional runaway car.
A child driving a real runaway car needs to be saved, not ignored or punished by being let to crash. Similarly, a child in an emotion runaway car needs to be saved first.
Hugging can save a child from having en emotional crash. Oxytocin calms down the arousal branch to reduce stress15 and relieve anxiety. It also activates the calming branch by creating an anti-anxiety effect16,17.
5. Hugs Build Resilience
At birth, a child’s nervous system is not mature enough to regulate big emotions by themselves. Toddlers having intense emotions have a hard time stopping because of this. They are not being stubborn or defiant.
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 a young child’s inability to regulate, this toxic level of stress hormone will impact the child’s health, both physically and mentally. This is why we should not just let a child go into an emotional crash.
Studies show that excessive exposure to stress hormone can compromise a child’s immune system resulting in more illness. Excessive stress affects memory and verbal reasoning capabilities later in life. It can also lead to depression when the child grows up18.
Hugging a dysregulated child not only helps them regulate, but it also allows them to experience their emotions being regulated. This crucial early life experience is how a child learns to develop self-regulation skills and build resilience19.
Hugging also helps children become more resilient by reducing the negative impact of conflicts.
In one study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examined the impact of hugging on conflict exposure. 404 people were interviewed every night for 14 consecutive days about their conflicts and hugs received. They found that when exposed to conflicts, individuals who had more hugs were less upset20. Hugs apparently were able to facilitate positive adaptation to these conflicts. The ability to positively adapt to challenges is an important element in building resilience in children.
6. Hugs Make Happy Kids
Hugs enhance a person’s psychological resources.
Psychological resources, such as optimism, mastery, and self-esteem, refer to individual differences that are directly predictive of physical and psychological health21.
Optimism refers to the extent to which people hold favorable expectations about the future. Mastery involves the belief that one can determine one’s own behavior, influence one’s environment, and bring about desired outcomes. Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall evaluation of self-worth.
These three resources are closely interrelated and can buffer the effects of stressful life events. Oxytocin released during hugging bolsters theses resources making a child feel loved22 and happy in life.
7. Hugs Help Child and Parents Bond
Hugs increase trust22. Trust is indispensable in building a strong interpersonal relationship.
Oxytocin increases one’s willingness to reduce fear, accept risk and trust the others to improve relationships. It also increase a child’s attachment security, leading to secure attachment and improved parent-child bonding23–25.
Hugging has all kinds of benefits. But body autonomy is also important. Teaching kids how to kindly refuse a hug and handle uncomfortable situations is a good lesson for the child, too.
Next time, give your child a big gentle cuddle, with permission of course, and give them the amazing benefits of hugging.
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