Research Shows Hugs are Good For Your Baby

The power of touch, and the unfortunate myth that you can spoil your baby

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Spoiler alert: You can’t spoil a baby.

When I write a headline like Research Shows Hugs are Good For Your Baby, I hope that readers think, “Well, duh.”

But take a look at any online parenting group, and you’ll find parents ashamed to admit they hold their crying babies:

“My husband and my mom say I’m spoiling my 2-month-old. I know I probably am, but when I pick him up he stops crying, so I keep picking him up. I give him milk whenever he wants it, but my mom says I need to get him on a schedule. What should I do?”

It’s hard to believe that, in 2019, people are still worried about spoiling their newborn babies, but this holdover from the Victorian Era persists.

Research however, continues to confirm that touching your baby is a good thing.

A December 2018 study, by University of Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University, has an intimidating title — Stroking modulates noxious-evoked brain activity in human infants — but an important finding: Touch acts as a pain reliever for your baby.

Just before a routine infant heel prick, scientists gently stroked some babies with a soft brush for 5 seconds, then measured the pain response in their brains (babies’ brains activate in the same areas as adults’ brains, when experiencing pain). The babies who’d been stroked showed 40% less pain activity in their brains. Babies also grimaced for less time if they had received the stroking. Pain relief, with zero downside!

The study found that the optimal stroking speed was 3 cm/s, which is the speed parents instinctively stroke their infants!

Mama Baby Snuggle Photo by Andrae Ricketts on Unsplash

The benefits of touch fit squarely in a growing body of research confirming the benefits of touching your baby and skin-to-skin contact. I’ll discuss more of that research below.

But first…

Where are people getting these ideas about “spoiling” their kids?

Psychologist John B. Watson, the founder of Behaviorism, wrote in his 1928 book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child:

Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it. (p. 81–82)

Watson — famous for his Little Albert experiment, where he purposely made a baby afraid of small furry animals, just to prove that he could — believed that children learn how to love by receiving loving touch as an infant. Almost 100 years ago, he understood the formative power of touch. But he advised the hundreds of thousands of families who bought his book not to give loving touch to their babies. Why? So they wouldn’t grow up to be adults who desired too much loving touch.

Infant touch has a powerful, lasting impact.

Loving touch with Papa Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

It’s hard to imagine what Watson had in mind when he advised parents to try to stop their children from desiring touch. Later in life, Watson regretted the advice he’d given, admitted that he “did not know enough” to give advice. He was wrong to discourage touch, but he was right that infant touch has a lasting impact.

Dr. Ruth Feldman, director of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience, conducted a 10-year study on the effects of skin-to-skin “Kangaroo Care” with premature infants — for just one hour a day, for 14 days. A control group received standard incubator care, without this KC skin-to-skin contact. Both groups — KC and standard incubator care — were repeatedly tested over a 10-year period:

“ KC increased autonomic functioning (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA) and maternal attachment behavior in the postpartum period, reduced maternal anxiety, and enhanced child cognitive development and executive functions from 6 months to 10 years. By 10 years of age, children receiving KC showed attenuated stress response, improved RSA, organized sleep, and better cognitive control. RSA and maternal behavior were dynamically interrelated over time, leading to improved physiology, executive functions, and mother–child reciprocity at 10 years.” — Journal of Biological Psychiatry
Babywearing Photo by Zahed Ahmad on Unsplash

People have been doing skin-to-skin with their babies since there were people, but the medical practice of Kangaroo Care began in 1983 in Bogota, Colombia, out of necessity, because of a shortage of incubators and a lack of power. Without the incubator option, mothers started to wear their premature babies, skin-to-skin 24/7, and it saved babies’ lives. Infant mortality dropped from 70% to 30% of premature babies, mother-infant attachment grew, and countries around the world adopted the practice.

There’s no question that incubators are life-savers, but once they were invented, people started using them as complete replacements for human touch. Only when there was an incubator shortage did people resort to skin-to-skin with premature babies, and the benefits were clear enough to prompt Dr. Feldman’s testing. Her tests showed that, in addition to the obvious short-term physical benefits, the positive effects of touch are long-lasting.

Throughout our entire lives, the language of touch remains powerful. As reported in The New York Times:

“A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched.”

We all know the power of touch. We feel it (literally and figuratively). Hold your babies.

What if you’re freaking out too much to hold your baby?

We’ve all been there. Photo by Jacob Mejicanos on Unsplash

Hey, parenting is hard. If you’re not in a state right now to hold your baby, then set them down somewhere safe. Take a breath and come back to them in a couple minutes, once you’ve calmed down a bit. Better yet, reach out for help. Call a friend who is not babying 24/7. They can cuddle your baby while you do some needed self-care. It’s exhausting to you, but it might be a rare treat for them.

And remember, parents, holding your baby increases your oxytocin as well. So when you’re freaking out, a little cuddle with your baby might be just what everyone needs.

Try babywearing, snuggling in the bath, breastfeeding or cuddling over a bottle, curling up together with a book, and safe co-sleeping. Start skin-to-skin immediately after birth, and then keep giving your little ones loving touch. You’re doing great!