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The Scientific Reason Hugs Benefit Early Childhood Development

flickr / Quinn Dombrowski

The amazing Shel Silverstein once wrote a poem suggesting a hug o’ war. In his opinion, it bested the tug o’ war because “everyone cuddles and everyone wins.” That said, he also wrote a folk song called “I Got Stoned And I Missed It.” So, take it in stride.

As it turns out, Silverstein’s poetic sidewalk ended at a place of scientific fact. Research proves everyone does win with a hug o’ war — especially young children who need those squeezes for healthy development. Of course you’re already doing this (possibly right now), but here are a bunch of reasons to keep doing it. Even when they’re in high school and shudder at your PDA.

Hormonal Happiness

The human body does a very interesting thing in response to a hug. It releases a hormone called oxytocin, which lonely nerds and scientists have christened the “love hormone.” Poor nerds.

Oxytocin is the neuropeptide that promotes feelings of well-being, connectedness, calm and security in all sorts of animals. It’s particularly effective when humans are in the presence of a person they love. Research shows oxytocin reduces stress. Findings also show it promotes healing by reducing inflammation. So basically, you should be mainlining hugs for your health.

And, even though your kid isn’t a stressed out mess like many adults, an oxytocin dump from a good hug will promote their sense of well-being and safety around you. It’s about 1000 times more effective than a high 5 — no matter how epic.

Touchy Touchy

One sad but eye opening study showed that children in orphanages without human contact had worse outcomes than children who had regular affectionate contact. In fact, the absence of touch was enough to stunt growth and slow development.

On the other hand, touch promotes the ability to thrive. When otherwise isolated children (like premature babies in incubators) are given the chance to be touched by parents, they have a much higher likelihood of survival.


The Cold Front

You know by now any place that little kids frequent is basically a germ factory. These places expose your kid to nasty stuff that will probably lay them out with a cough and a snotty nose. That leads to wholesale household misery, worse than the Kathy Bates kind.

Happily, research has shown that people who feel like 2 bags of crapola from viral infections get a benefit from hugging it out. Not only did people who received more hugs have less severe symptoms from stuff like the common cold, they were even less likely to get the cold in the first place. Which seems counterintuitive considering how close your get to a person when you hug. But, as long as you’re not hugging their whole snotty face, turns out you might be alright.

Be Selfish

Finally, there’s something in it for you: hugging your kid on the reg will lower your blood pressure. That’s thanks again to your old friend oxytocin that also triggers the release of other hormones like dopamine.

Again, you’re already doing this — but at least now you know it’s paying off.