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The More You Hug Your Kids, The More Their Brains Develop

Happy mother embracing her small son at home, while boy is looking at camera.

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

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As mothers, we already have an innate instance to snuggle our babies. But did you know that every time you hug your kids, you’re helping their brains to develop? When babies are born all of their brain cells, called neurons are in place, but there are very few connections between these cells. New learning occurs when these connections are formed between neurons. When babies take in new information through their senses and experiences, these… Read More

As mothers, we already have an innate instance to snuggle our babies. But did you know that every time you hug your kids, you’re helping their brains to develop?

When babies are born all of their brain cells, called neurons are in place, but there are very few connections between these cells. New learning occurs when these connections are formed between neurons. When babies take in new information through their senses and experiences, these connections occur. When a baby is adequately stimulated these connections occur at a rate of one million per second. On the other hand, when a baby does not get adequate stimulation and exposure to experiences throughout their first few years of life, these connections do not occur. The chance for building these connections could be lost forever.

Why Hugging Early and Often Is Essential

Age zero to three is the critical period for these connections to take place. This is the time of “neural plasticity” when the neural pathways, or connections between the cells, also called synapses, occur. After this critical period, the brain is not as plastic, or “changeable” and the connections do not happen at such a fast rate. It becomes harder to create these connections and allow for new learning at such a fast rate.

Hugging, cuddling and connecting with babies and young children helps these connections to form for a number of reasons. Humans are primed to thrive in human interactions. Babies crave interactions to help these connections to occur. Here are some ways you can incorporate the brain-boosting benefits of hugging your kids from birth and beyond.

Babies

Long before babies understand spoken language, they connect with their parents or caregivers through touch. Skins is the largest organ, so it has a large representation in the brain. Any stimulation to the baby’s skin stimulates a large portion of the brain and allows for a large number of connections. Simply by holding and cuddling your baby, you are helping to form these connections and make your baby smarter!

Baby massage is another great way to stimulate the baby’s skin and form these connections. You can expand upon this by talking to your baby while you perform the massage. Make eye contact and talk about each body part while you massage it. If you say “I am massaging your little leg” while you do the leg strokes, they are processing three sensations. They are focused on your face visually, perceiving your voice and perceiving the sense of touch. This builds a lot of brain cells! They will also start to equate the words with the body part and begin to learn body awareness while they form the foundation for their vocabulary.

Toddlers

When your child is a toddler, they begin to develop a stronger sense of self and willingness to step away from you to explore their world. You will notice that they often check to make sure that you are still there and occasionally return to you for reassurance. If you provide a loving hug when they come back to you, you are reassuring them that you are nearby, offering support and encouragement. This gives them the self-esteem to go off on their own again and explore their world. It is also building those important connections, always knowing that you are there to support them.

Try to build hugs and cuddles into the daily routine. Young children thrive with routines because they add predictability and stability to their lives. When they know what to expect, they are more calm and stable. Maybe every morning begins with a hug and every evening ends with a cuddle while you read books to your child. This gives them the predictability they need to be successful and independent throughout the day.

Pre-School and Beyond

When your child is pre-school age and even school age, hugs are still critical for their social-emotional development, mental health and sense of self. Try to integrate hugs and cuddles into the after-school routine. Maybe designate every afternoon after school as “10 minute cuddle time” where you cuddle together on the sofa. Have them tell you all about their day and discuss their achievements and challenges, fears and triumphs.

This is great for healthy development because your child is provided a loving outlet to discuss anything that is difficult for them as well as sharing their achievements with you. You can take this snuggle time to process their day, help them understand confusing concepts and build their ability to communicate. These are all important skills for building your child’s self-worth and autonomy and this contributes to strong mental health.

Everyone loves hugs, but hugging your kids is actually a critical piece to early child development!