Have you ever noticed how a hug from a loved one can melt away the troubles of a hard day? If so, we’re here to tell you that this healing power of hugs isn’t just in your imagination. A loving embrace from a close friend or family member has the potential to relieve stress and it comes with a range of real health benefits, as we explained in detail in our previous article titled 10 Wonderful Health Benefits of Hugging.
And while we can all experience these benefits, research also shows that there’s one group of people that require cuddles even more than the rest of us - the little ones. All kids - be it the sweet infants, the adorable toddlers, the busy school kids, or the feisty teenagers - need daily hugs and cuddles from their parents, grandparents, and close family members. And when we write “need”, we’re hardly exaggerating: scientists found that hugging plays an important role in a child’s brain development, offers stress relief, and may even change a baby’s genes.
Read on to learn more about these science-backed benefits of giving the little ones a big bear hug.
1. The importance of hugs for a baby’s brain development
A simple hug can play a huge role in a baby’s future. Researchers have known this for a while, and this is precisely why so many hospitals encourage mothers to hug and have skin-to-skin contact with their kids as soon as they are born. This practice is known under the term ‘kangaroo care’, and it’s usually said to promote bonding and early breastfeeding in infants.
But this practice is actually even more important than that, as it seems that skin-to-skin contact can directly influence a baby’s brain. One neurological study found, for example, that gentle touch stimulated the brain activity of preterm babies and predicted their receptiveness to affection in the future.
As Emily Mudd, a researcher at Cleveland Clinic, pointed out, “We know that even from the moment we’re born, that touch, physical touch, attention, and hugs, are so very important for both nervous system regulation, and brain development.” As the baby develops, the need for hugs and touch doesn’t go away, and research shows that kids that grew up with affection and hugs are usually more resilient to stress and even get better grades as students.
2. Hugs and affection help the little ones cope with their fears
In every child’s life, there comes a time when they start talking about monsters hiding under the bed or some other imaginary creature that keeps them awake at night. Usually, this is a child’s way to conceptualize existential angst, which are the fears that stem from thinking about human existence. We all have these fears, but how much we give in to them often determines how confident or resilient to stress we grow up to be.
Studies point out that physical touch helps us forget about these existential fears, which is probably why kids that get plenty of affection tend to be more resistant to stress. With all that said, we’d like to add that you shouldn’t force a child into a hug. Some kids are simply drawn to hugs and physical connection more than others, and that’s okay.
If your kiddo doesn’t like to be hugged and cuddled, psychologists recommend verbal reinforcement. As cheesy as it may sound, the occasional “I love you” goes a long way.
3. Hugs are super calming (even for infants)
One could argue that hugs only have a psychological effect. After all, a child usually knows that their parent or grandparent loves them, and a hug serves as a reminder of that affection and support. However, exciting research in infants from 2020 suggests that a hug goes much deeper and actually has a physical calming effect.
The Japanese study measured small kids' heart rates when they were held or hugged by their parents and by strangers. As young as four months, infants exhibited immediate physiological changes: their heart rate slowed down slightly when they were held by strangers and then even more when their parents held them.
This suggests an immediate calming effect of cuddles even in tiny infants. So, the next time you see that the kiddo is upset or stressed, give them a big hug; chances are that it’s exactly what they need.
4. Hugs boost oxytocin levels in the body
You’ve likely heard about the hormone oxytocin. It’s also known as the love hormone because it makes us feel calm and loved. Apart from that, this hormone lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety, promotes better sleep, and may even improve memory.
Contrary to popular belief, though, oxytocin isn’t just linked to romantic love. Oxytocin is also tightly connected with parenthood. Researchers know, for example, that mothers have especially high levels of oxytocin during childbirth and breastfeeding. They also established that physical contact, including hugs, kisses, and cuddles, triggers a rush of oxytocin. Best of all, these benefits go both ways - both you and the little ones will feel calmer and better!
5. Cuddles may be able to influence one’s genes
Scientists have known for a while now that our genes are not entirely set in stone. The environment can make our body turn on and off some genes, especially during the first months and years of our lives. These changes are governed by our epigenome, which can tweak our DNA to varying degrees. Although this is a pretty new field of research, there’s one intriguing study suggesting that cuddling infants can change their epigenome.
The researchers selected 100 babies who got different degrees of hugs and cuddles after birth and established that those who received more snuggles exhibited detectable changes in their DNA more than 4 years later. The researchers also detected that the kids who were hugged and cuddled less had a shorter estimated “epigenetic age”, which can sometimes predict that one will have poorer health.
The takeaway message is - don’t hesitate to hug and cuddle up with your kids and grandkids as much as you can, as it turns out that it’s especially good for them.
Share this information with the parents and grandparents you know!