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To Hug or Not to Hug is the Question?

For many people, being affectionate towards children, for example by hugging them or holding their hand, is second nature. It feels as if it has been hardwired in along with your DNA – it is a natural instinct that you not only simply feel compelled to do, but you watched your parents and other family members do the same. However, for some people, hugging children is not second nature or a natural thing that they feel inclined to do. Perhaps the behaviour was not modelled for them at a young age, or they don’t particularly like physical contact. A classic example can be that of the hadith about Al-Aqra. Abu Huraira reported that “Al-Aqra’ b. Habis saw Allah’s Messenger kissing Hasan. He said: I have ten children, but I have never kissed any one of them, whereupon Allah’s Messenger said: He who does not show mercy (towards his children), no mercy would be shown to him.” [1]. A person’s experiences and relationships, particularly those from their childhood, have an immense influence upon their development and transition into adulthood. Even our parental philosophy is a reflection of our past, in one way or another, and whilst Al-Aqra’s statement was his instinctive reaction to what he had seen, it may not mean that he was disapproving. Rather, he seemed to be taken aback perhaps because he was seeing something he had not necessarily witnessed or experienced before.

There are many reasons why a person may or may not choose to hug their children, but the importance of hugging children is something that is well documented and encouraged, in the child care and development field.

Hugging your children can actually enhance their brain development. Babies need to experience the world with all 5 of their senses to develop properly and to stimulate their brains, so hugging them and having skin-on-skin contact is vital for their brain development. Research has shown that babies who are raised in environments that seriously lack physical affection, such as Eastern European orphanages, often struggle with severe cognitive and developmental delays. However, children who experience 20 minutes of tactile stimulation (touch) daily for 10 weeks actually score higher in developmental assessments than those who don’t. It is worth mentioning that all forms of tactile stimulation aren’t equally beneficial, the most beneficial form is a gentle touch or a hug – only a nurturing touch can stimulate brain development.

As well as developing their brains, hugging helps babies to physically grow and develop correctly while maintaining their general health. Hugging releases a chemical called oxytocin into the brain, which is also known as the ‘love’ hormone. Whilst this hormone is typically associated with feelings of stability, love, and trust, it is also closely linked to growth. Oxytocin being released triggers growth hormones such as IGF-1 (an insulin-like growth hormone) and NGF (nerve growth factor). Furthermore, it has been documented that children who are deprived of nurturing touch and skin-to-skin contact can stop growing and developing as they should. Known as ‘failure-to-thrive’, the condition means that infants simply do not grow or develop, despite normal intake of nutrients. On a positive note, this can be reversed through physical contact, and children can become healthy rather quickly simply when given a nurturing touch.

There are also benefits for your children’s emotional wellbeing and development when you hug them often. Although some parenting methods suggest leaving your child to self soothe, or that offering your child physical affection when they cry or have a temper tantrum is giving in, hugging actually teaches your child to self-regulate their emotions. Children’s temper tantrums are not the result of bad behavior or bad parenting. As adults, we have learned to regulate our emotions whereas young children have not yet reached this developmental milestone. This means that they don’t know how to keep their emotions under control or calm themselves down once their emotions begin to spiral out of control. When you hug your child, it releases oxytocin, as we mentioned before. This helps calm the arousal branch of their nervous system, which reduces anxiety, as well as activating the calming branch of their nervous system. As well as this physical response to the contact, you are teaching your child that you are there to support them and care for them, no matter the emotions they feel, which is so important for their social and emotional health. It is important that both parents engage in this soothing of the child, so that your child feels like they are supported and loved by both parents equally.

As well as these soothing benefits, hugging makes your child more resilient to stress and conflict, which is a valuable skill for later in life. Stress triggers a release of cortisol in the body, which creates mental and physical distress. This is another argument against the self-soothing approach, and in favour of comforting the child. Too much exposure to stress can lead to a myriad of problems later on, such as a compromised immune system, lower memory and reasoning capabilities, and a higher likelihood of depressive tendencies. By soothing your child with hugs, you are teaching them how to regulate their emotions and lower their cortisol levels. Studies show that even when people are exposed to conflict, the damage it has is lessened when they are exposed to hugs. Hugging your child when they are upset has far more reaching benefits than simply stopping them crying, from their physical health to their mental, social and emotional health, a hug can do a lot.

It is important to note that hugging your children also models healthy relationship behaviors that they can copy as they get older. The release of oxytocin from hugging has countless benefits for both parent and child, including improved psychological resources like self-esteem and optimism, better parental bonding, and increased trust. In a study fathers who got a shot of oxytocin via nasal spray played more closely with their 5 month old baby than fathers who didn’t. Oxytocin is in the hypothalamus and is released into the bloodstream through the pituitary gland, but some of it remains in the brain which affects mood and behaviour. Oxytocin increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin and dopamine. Interestingly, it has been demonstrated that many fathers stop hugging their children around age 10, but the benefits of hugging carry on later into life. Fathers hugging their children is extremely important. Hugging from any parent is valuable, but when both parents offer physical affection to their children, you will see the most benefit. Breaking the societal stereotype that men aren’t affectionate is reason alone to continue (or start) hugging your children, as well as the fact that when you model healthy, loving relationships, your children are more likely to be in healthy relationships as they age. Hugging builds trust and love and creates a really special bond between parent and child.

Giving out hugs to your children has so many positive features, it is important to be loving role models and to build trust with your children, and when hugs even boost their physical health and brain development, you can’t go wrong.


Reference:

  1. Sahih Muslim, The Book Pertaining to the Excellent Qualities of the Prophet and his companions, Book 30, Hadith 5736

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