The importance and science behind hugging

The importance and science behind hugging

Hugging – one of life’s joys. We all thrive on oxytocin, and nothing reflects the feeling of giving and getting a hug.

All children crave a sense of love, trust and safety – and a simple hug can foster those feelings in all of us. One thing to keep in mind – hugs that last 20 seconds or more carry the most benefit.

Giving your child a hug actually carries more benefits than you might think. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that hugs aid brain development, boost physical health, help emotional regulation and build resilience.

The science

For young children and babies, who need a variety of different sensory stimulation for development, hugging is one of the most important ones required to grow a healthy brain and strong body.

“We know that even from the moment we’re born, as a newborn, that touch, physical touch, attention, hugs, are so very important for both nervous system regulation, brain development, just from the moment we’re born. We talk about kangaroo care and skin-to-skin, and that really continues through childhood.” Dr Emily Mudd

Hugging triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with trust, safety, and love. When released, it also stimulates particular growth hormones in the body.

Find out more below.

1. Brain development

Touch is the first of the five senses to develop, and because babies first learn to navigate through the world this way, physical contact such as a hug is crucial for their development. Premature babies are particularly receptive to brain response when they are hugged or gently touched.

In fact, maternal skin-to-skin contact was found to enhance prematurely born infants’ physiological organization and cognitive control for the first 10 years of life in one study, according to Psychology Today.

3. Emotional development and regulation

Nothing soothes more than a big, loving hug.

Children can lose control of their emotions quickly – not because they’re being difficult, but simply because they haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions. Hugging a child in a moment of intense emotional outburst will actually teach them that you’re a support during difficult times.

4. Reduces stress and increases resilience

During moments of distress and stress, adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body and brain. Because children haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions, stress can linger in the bodies of kids reaching toxic levels. When this happens, these stress hormones can impact a child’s health both mentally and physically.

“When you get a loving and firm hug, it stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, which in turn send a message to the vagus nerve in your brain. The vagus nerve takes this cue to slow down your heart rate and your blood pressure, putting you in a relaxed state.
The hug even curbs stress hormones such as cortisol, facilitates food absorption and the digestion process, and stimulates the release of serotonin, which counteracts pain.” The Connected Child

5. Relationships

In addition to the scientific benefits for your child, hugging your child also creates a stronger bond between you. When you’re giving a hug, your brain releases dopamine — the pleasure hormone that signals reward. This hugging “high” helps babies and children recognize your smell, and vice versa. The more you snuggle, the more dopamine kicks in, which creates a cycle that makes you want to snuggle more.

Wanted hugs

It’s important to mention that all the above benefits are a result of natural and ‘wanted’ hugs. Some children just aren’t ‘huggers’ – and that’s OK, too. Teaching children how to speak up and be confident about not wanting a hug is also a very important lesson as they grow up. If this is the case, we suggest a very simple message like “you’re in control of your body, and if you don’t want to hug the people at this gathering, that’s okay. Perhaps you can give them a high-five instead.”

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