Hugging provides many benefits. It is particularly important in child development. Let’s dive into the science behind and explore the significance of a hug.
Why Is Hugging Good For You?
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 child grow smarter, healthier, happier, more resilient and closer to the parent.
Here are the scientific benefits of hugging.
The Science Of Hugs
1. Hugs Create Smarter Kids.
A young child’s growth 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 body.
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 cognitive development1.
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 assessments2.
Studies also found that not all types of touch are beneficial. Only a nurturing touch like gentle hugging can provide positive stimulation a young brain needs to grow healthily3,4.
Related: Brain Development In Children
2. Hugs Help Kids Grow.
When children are deprived of physical contact, their bodies stop growing despite normal intake of nutrients. These children suffer from failure-to-thrive. This growth deficiency can be improved when nurturing touches and hugs are provided5–7.
Hugging 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 well8. The nurturing touch of a hug can enhance a child’s growth9,10.
3. Hugging Keeps Kids Healthy.
Hugs are healthy. The increase level of oxytocin can strengthen immune systems. It lowers the plasma levels of thyroid hormones causing wounds to heal faster11.
4. Hugs Can Stop Temper Tantrums
Hugs are good for a child’s emotional health. Nothing can calm a tantrum throwing toddler faster than a big hug from Mom.
Many parents worry that hugging a tantrum-throwing child is rewarding bad behavior with attention. But it is not.
Emotion regulation works like a car. In a car, the gas pedal and the brake work separately to control the speed. In our nervous system, the arousal branch and the calming branch are the two systems that work separately to control our emotion.
When a child cries intensely, the arousal branch (gas pedal) is overactive while the calming branch (the brake) is underactive. Imagine driving while pressing the gas pedal all the way and not applying the brake. You have a runaway car.
Children in tantrum is exactly like a runaway car. They are extremely aroused while the calming mechanism is disengaged.
If your child disobeys you and drives a runaway car, do you let it crash because you don’t want to reward him with attention?
Of course not, right?! You stop the car to rescue him first and then lecture later.
Hugging a child in tantrum is the same. You are helping him avoid an emotional crash.
Hugging can help calm the nervous system, reduce stress and relieve anxiety. It triggers the release of feel-good hormone, oxytocin, that can lower the level of stress hormone and its anxiety effects12,13. So hugging is releasing the emotional gas pedal while stepping on the brake.
Save first. Teach later.
5. Hugging Produces Resilient Kids.
At birth, children’s nervous systems are not mature enough to regulate big emotions by themselves. This is why toddlers having intense emotions have a hard time stopping.
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. Studies show that excessive exposure to stress hormone can compromise the child’s immune system and affect memory and verbal reasoning later in life. It can also lead to depression when the child grows up14.
Hugs trigger the release of oxytocin to lower the level of stress hormone and prevent harmful effects. Hugging helps children learn to regulate their own emotions and develop resilience15.
6. Happy Hugs Make Happy Kids
Hugs bolster optimism and boost self-esteem. The powerful oxytocin makes a child feel loved16.
7. Hugs Help You Bond With Kids
Hugs increase trust, reduces fear and improve relationship.
Hugging promotes secure attachment and improves parent-child bonding17–19.
Hugging has all kinds of benefits. But body autonomy is important, too. Teaching kids how to kindly refuse a hug and handle uncomfortable situations is a good lesson for the child, too.
Now, go give your child a big gentle cuddle now, with permission of course, and give them the gift of hug benefits.
- 1.Johnson AK, Groze V. The Orphaned and Institutionalized Children of Romania. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems. 1994;2:49-52. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ486018.
- 2.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.
- 3.Field T, Schanberg S, Scafidi F, et al. Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. Pediatrics. 1986;77(5):654-658. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3754633.
- 4.Kuhn CM, Schanberg SM. Responses to maternal separation : mechanisms and mediators. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. June 1998:261-270. doi:10.1016/s0736-5748(98)00034-3
- 5.Ardiel E, Rankin C. The importance of touch in development. Paediatr Child Health. 2010;15(3):153-156. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21358895.
- 6.Frank D, Klass P, Earls F, Eisenberg L. Infants and young children in orphanages: one view from pediatrics and child psychiatry. Pediatrics. 1996;97(4):569-578. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8632947.
- 7.POLAN HJ, WARD MJ. Role of the Mother’s Touch in Failure to Thrive: A Preliminary Investigation. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. October 1994:1098-1105. doi:10.1097/00004583-199410000-00005
- 8.Petersson M, Lundeberg T, Sohlström A, Wiberg U, Uvnäs-Moberg K. Oxytocin increases the survival of musculocutaneous flaps. Naunyn-Schmiedeberg’s Arch Pharmacol. June 1998:701-704. doi:10.1007/pl00005227
- 9.Feldman R, Eidelman AI. Skin-to-skin contact (Kangaroo Care) accelerates autonomic and neurobehavioural maturation in preterm infants. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. February 2007:274-281. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.2003.tb00343.x
- 10.Evoniuk G, Kuhn C, Schanberg S. The effect of tactile stimulation on serum growth hormone and tissue ornithine decarboxylase activity during maternal deprivation in rat pups. Commun Psychopharmacol. 1979;3(5):363-370. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/548216.
- 11.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.
- 12.Weller A, Feldman R. Emotion regulation and touch in infants: the role of cholecystokinin and opioids. Peptides. May 2003:779-788. doi:10.1016/s0196-9781(03)00118-9
- 13.Light KC, Grewen KM, Amico JA. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology. April 2005:5-21. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.11.002
- 14.Stokes PE. The potential role of excessive cortisol induced by HPA hyperfunction in the pathogenesis of depression. European Neuropsychopharmacology. January 1995:77-82. doi:10.1016/0924-977x(95)00039-r
- 15.Troy AS, Iris BM. Resilience in the face of stress: emotion regulation as a protective factor. In: Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges across the Lifespan. Vol 1. Cambridge University Press; 2011:30-44.
- 16.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. September 2011:15118-15122. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113137108
- 17.Buchheim A, Heinrichs M, George C, et al. Oxytocin enhances the experience of attachment security. Psychoneuroendocrinology. October 2009:1417-1422. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.04.002
- 18.Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. June 2005:673-676. doi:10.1038/nature03701
- 19.Fischer-Shofty M, Shamay-Tsoory SG, Harari H, Levkovitz Y. The effect of intranasal administration of oxytocin on fear recognition. Neuropsychologia. January 2010:179-184. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.09.003