Those tiny hands, those pudgy palms, a vice-like grip on your thumb. Holding the small, warm body close, taking in the baby smell … it is a calming experience. There’s a physiological change; the brain floods the body with oxytocin, the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone; suddenly, you find yourself smiling, aping the little one’s coos and sighs.
Turns out though, it’s not just the adult benefiting from the interaction, the babe is too. This touch has a domino effect on the neural pathways of a brain, creating connections, modulating activity patterns, growing synapsis and function. Your hug may just be making your baby smarter.
Hugging releases oxytocin which is "feel good” brain chemical that helps in bonding, slowing of heart rate and reduction of stress.
Dr Preeti Sahota, Consultant, Neurology, at Prime Hospital, explains: “When we hug our babies, it not only helps them regulate their emotions but also is very important for both nervous system regulation and brain development. Hugging releases oxytocin, which is the "feel good” brain chemical that helps in bonding, slowing of heart rate and reduction of stress. It also releases cortisol - that helps in calming babies and kids down as well as promotes the release of endorphins in the brain's reward pathways supporting the immediate feelings of pleasure. Research has shown that kids who receive warmth and affection from parents at a very young age are more likely to have greater resilience, get better grades and have better parent-child relationships in adulthood.”
Researchers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) studied the hormone oxytocin and the role in plays in neurological development – as per their research, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal ‘Current Biology’, they found that the hormone activates a specific neuron subtype called somatostatin interneurons .
“In the developing brain, neuronal connections form with remarkable precision. Already before the senses become active, spontaneous activity prepares the brain for interacting with the outside world” explains Christian Lohmann, group leader at the NIN.
Researchers studied the role of somatostatin interneurons, which inhibits other neurons, in turn promoting the development of local subnetworks. The study thus found a correlation between the production of oxytocin and the development of sensory circuits in a brain.
It’s not just hugs that release the ‘happy hormone’, which promotes a sense of well-being and attachment to the caregiver, reduces anxiety and even physical health, it’s the sense of touch that benefits.
What can touch do for a child?
Quite a lot actually. In infants, the term kangaroo care is used to describe the skin-to-skin bonding time a parent has with a child. Louise Atkinson, a certified doula and infant massage instructor at UAE-based Dou La La, explains that touch releases the ‘feel-good’ hormone oxytocin. “It coats everything with the feelings of love, feelings of value and feelings of respect,” she adds. “Those are the emotional benefits as well for a breastfeeding mother; she would produce more prolactin [protein responsible for lactation] for breastfeeding. And the physical benefits are weight gain in baby, reduction of colic, better sleep, digestion, greater resilience and muscle tone,” she adds.
All touches – like all hugs – are different
Did you know? There are two types of touch systems: ‘fast-touch’ and ‘slow-touch’. The fast system is one made of nerves that quickly detect contact – such as when you touch a ‘hot’ drink or brush past ice. The ‘slow-touch’ is a network of nerves called c-tactile afferents that compute the emotional sensations of a touch. As per a paper published in the international ‘Journal of Neuroscience’, “CT afferents are tuned to respond to tactile stimuli with the specific characteristics of a gentle caress delivered at typical skin temperature. This provides a peripheral mechanism for signaling pleasant skin-to-skin contact in humans, which promotes interpersonal touch and affiliative behaviour.”
Touch – and hugs – can be beneficial, but there are times, when a well-intentioned adult can cause more stress than peace. Experts warn that calling for a cuddle when a child is unwilling will only lead to distress. “Kids have the right to consent before being exposed to physical interactions with others, whether family members or strangers. Kids have the right to say no, and their parents should not allow the interaction; without showing any negative emotions or reactions towards their kids. Moreover, if any unpleasant reaction against the kids' consent happens from other adults, parents should intervene to support their kid's right to decide. Forcing our kids to do otherwise can cause emotional harm, confusion, and loss of trust,” says Nashwa Tantawy, Counseling Psychologist at Openminds Centre.
Dubai-based Nadia Güzel, German expat and mum to twins, says “When family, including my parents say, ‘give me a hug’, I say, ‘don’t ask please. They will hug you when they are ready.’”
The US-based Exchange Family Center quotes research that states that infants in orphanages where they were rarely held were found to have severe cognitive impairments. But when they were held for just 20 minutes per day for 10 weeks, they scored higher on brain development assessments.
Cuddles are great – for both huggie and hugger – just follow the kid’s lead.
Do you have a topic you'd like us to discuss? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org