(The article below is based on an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
My mother, who was mentally ill, never hugged me, never caressed me, never held me close. As a young child, I had no idea what I was missing. As an adult, I realized that hugs and kisses instill security and stability in kids, and pave the way for healthy emotional development.
Just as a ping pong game revolves around serving and return activity—back and forth interactions—so does a child’s developing brain, according to Harvard researchers.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has found: “When an infant or young baby babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that supports the development of communication and social skills.”
The researchers go on to explain that the persistent absence of serve-and-return interaction acts as a “double whammy” for healthy development. The developing brain doesn’t receive the positive stimulation it needs, and the body’s stress response is activated. When this happens, the developing brain is flooded with potentially harmful stress hormones.
Stress can become toxic when there is prolonged activation of the stress response system and a lack of protective relationships. According to the Center on the Developing Child, “This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.” https://developingchild.harvard..concepts/toxic-stress
Infants Respond to Kangaroo Care
Fortunately, when parents are unavailable to provide the caring touch and emotional interaction for babies, other adults can effectively fill the void, according to researchers.
Baby cuddling programs run by hospitals show this to be the case. Notably, baby cuddling programs are springing up in hospitals across the country.
It’s been recognized that the human touch can be lifesaving to a newborn baby. Dr. Barbara R. Edwards, who specializes in internal medicine in the Princeton, NJ, area, explains, “Whether the baby is born premature, addicted to opioids, or has a health condition requiring an extended stay in the hospital, baby cuddlers can fill in when parents can’t be there.” https://www.drbarbaraedwards.c…eing-a-baby-cuddler/
According to Dr. Edwards, “Skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo care (KC), helps a newborn relax and supports their physical, emotional and social growth.” She cites a study of premature infants, completed in 1996 and then again in 1998, which showed that “babies who received 60 minutes of cuddling for 14 days showed better sleep habits, focus and stress management skills compared to babies who did not receive kangaroo care. All babies were reevaluated at 3 & 6 months old, one & two years old, and 5 & 10 years old, and all results were consistent with original findings.”
A friend of mine participates in a volunteer baby cuddling program in the NICU at a local hospital. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the program has been put on hold, and my friend misses cuddling the infants.
It probably comes as no surprise, but as Dr. Edwards and my friend relate, baby cuddling is relaxing and comforting for both the baby and the baby cuddler. All of which points to the need to keep hugging and cuddling the babies in our care.
(This article is the first in a two-part series on the positive effects of hugging. A future article will explore how oxytocin, sometimes known as the “hug hormone” or the “cuddle hormone,” mitigates ACEs and promotes happiness in adults. My book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions.)
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.