Everybody knows that a hug can help make the difference between a better or worse day—and that’s for us adults. For kids, the importance of physical touch is even more important, and for babies it’s absolutely vital.
While it’s common wisdom that babies and kids who have been held more feel more secure and confident, scientific research is increasingly proving just how much of a difference a hug can make.
Obstetricians and early childhood development specialists often call the full-term baby’s first weeks out of the womb “the fourth trimester,” as the newborn makes massive adjustments from the warm and safe environment of its mother’s womb to the sounds, smells, textures, and temperatures of the outside world.
For babies who are born premature (before 37 weeks), it’s not even the fourth trimester. They’ve been interrupted mid-gestation. So when parents ask doctors why their newborns will only fall asleep in their arms, against their bodies, they’re forgetting how big of a change is taking place.
What to do to help ease the transition for parents and newborns? The answer from doctors and scientists is simple: hold your babies as early as possible as much as possible. Many neonatal units in hospitals across the United States have been promoting “kangaroo care,” maximizing the amount of skin-to-skin time mothers and babies get.
As reported by Psychology Today, neonatal specialist Dr. Natalia Brando of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., notes that the benefits of skin-to-skin contact are numerous: “stabilization of heart rate, breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels, gains in sleep time and weight, decreased crying, greater breastfeeding success and earlier hospital discharge.”
Dr. Brando also noted that more recent research has underscored the benefits of kangaroo care for parents. This technique “can also decrease parental stress that can interfere with bonding, health and emotional wellness, and the interpersonal relations of parents, as well as breastfeeding rates.”
Even more amazing has been the results of skin-to-skin contact for premature babies, who are the most frequent occupants of neonatal intensive care units in hospitals.
Dr. Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio conducted a study comparing the ways that premature babies and full-term babies responded to gentle touch. Her findings showed, unsurprisingly, that full-term babies’ brains responded more intensely.
This is one of the many benefits that they have over preemies.
But when it came to preemies, the research showed that those who had been held or touched by their parents responded as well as full-term babies. In other words, lots of hugs can help preemies catch up and reap all the developmental benefits of their parents’ touch.
As Dr. Maitre said, per Psychology Today, “making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother’s womb.”
But these studies have also shown that what happens in the “fourth trimester” has long-lasting implications as far as 10 years in the future. For Maitre, hugs from parents “can actually impact how the brain processes touch, a sense necessary for learning and social-emotional connections.”
That means the connections made in the first few months will ultimately have a lot to do with how your child will fare when they go to school and get out in the world. Will they be fearful of touch and encountering new people and things? Or will they be confident and able to engage?
It depends on how much they are hugged!