Apart from adequate nutrition, children need emotional stimulation to develop well. Babies who are emotionally deprived experience eating and sleeping disorders, delayed motor and cognitive milestones as well as voiding disorders. In severe emotional deprivation, children fail to grow physically as well. This is known as failure to thrive. One of the simplest ways of providing emotional stimulation is to hug your baby.
A hug is when you envelope your baby in your arms. It provides skin-to-skin contact and warmth. A hug says to your child ‘I am happy you are my child’. As early as 4 months old, a baby can tell the difference between a hug from you and that of a stranger. Long before your baby can hug you back, he enjoys being hugged. And when he begins to hug you, at around age 15-18 months, you will enjoy it too. Hugging your baby is not the same as holding. Holding is usually for a functional purpose-you hold to feed, bathe or clothe. A hug is a show of affection.
The Science of Hugging
During a hug, there is an increase in the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has several effects on other hormones and organs of the body. It relieves stress. It helps to calm down a child and leads to less crying. By making a child feel safe, it increases his self-esteem. It also teaches him empathy and boosts his intelligence. Oxytocin stimulates physical growth and helps strengthen the immune system. Hugging helps build resilience by negating the emotional impacts of conflicts. During hugging, the bond between you and your child grows. Hugging is not good for only your child. It makes you feel good too.
The best way to hug is heart-to-heart. Let your child’s chest be against yours as you hug. It stimulates the thymus gland which is involved in the body’s production of white blood cells, needed to fight infections.
How Many Hugs does your Child Need?
It is not clear how many hugs a child needs in a day. Experts have recommended from 4 to 12 hugs a day. Seems a lot? It is easy to get that many squeezes in if you incorporate it into your child’s routine. Hug your child first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Then hug when he is leaving for school, when he gets home from school, whenever he does something right, whenever he is stressed, or whenever he is excited. Hug after a meal and hug after he has told you what is troubling him. Just hug.
How Long should a Hug Last?
It takes at least 6 seconds for the processes that trigger oxytocin release to be activated, so a hug should last that long. Some authors have suggested that the greatest benefit is derived when a hug lasts 20 seconds.
Hugging and Body Autonomy
Teach your child that his body belongs to him alone and nothing should be done to it unless he is comfortable with it. Model it by asking him if it’s ok for you to hug him. And if he says no to a hug, respect it. He will grow up knowing that people need to ask his permission before touching his body, and also that it is alright to say no to others touching his body, whether they are adults or not.
There’s a lot in a hug, for you and your child, scientifically speaking. While you hug, it is important to teach your child body autonomy. Let your child decide whether he wants to accept a hug from you or not. Let’s go hugging!