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25 February 2015

How Hugging Makes Kids Happier, Healthier and Self-confident

To survive, kids need the basic necessities like food, shelter, and medical attention. However, surviving is not thriving. For a kid to truly thrive, they need lots of hugs and other forms of affection.

There's actually a scientific basis for this. Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, the hormone most important in forming bonds and creating trust. This powerful hormone also reduces fear while increasing the capacity for generosity and compassion. In order words, elevated oxytocin allows your child to function better in society, get along better with peers, and not automatically distrust other adults like teachers and child care attendants. With higher oxytocin, you child will also feel more assured at home so he or she is more willing to try new things.

Hugging Kids

Oxytocin affects the levels of other hormones in a child's body as well. When Oxytocin levels are elevated, cortisol levels automatically significantly drop. There are many health benefits to lowering cortisol such as lowering anxiety, lowering blood pressure, preventing weight gain, strengthening the immune system, and helping the body regulate blood sugar more effectively. 

Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins will also all increase when oxytocin is elevated. Dopamine is associated with never giving up on a goal. Serotonin makes a child feel special. It also fights depression and loneliness. Children that join gangs or get in with the wrong crowd are often found to have low serotonin. Endorphins make a child feel good. They are natural anti-depressants and reduce anxiety.

Dr. Paul Zak, of Claremont Graduate University, reports that oxytocin levels remain elevated for a full hour after a twenty second hug. Thus, it stands to reason that spreading hugs out throughout the day is the best strategy. In fact, Dr. Zak recommends that you aim for around twelve hugs a day to get the full benefit for a growing child! Generally, longer hugs do more good than short hugs but all hugs add up.

Hugging can come in different forms too and still provide many of the same benefits. Here are a couple of examples:
1. When children hug a stuffed animal or a doll, their oxytocin levels may rise just like when they hug people. This is one of the reasons you'll notice children hugging their stuffed animals and/or dolls when they are afraid, stressed, or feeling left out. It's almost like taking a shot of oxytocin! This is also the reason children sometimes become so attached to their stuffed animals and/or dolls they want to take them everywhere.

Hugging Stuffed Toys

2. Children who have issues that are known to have lower than normal oxytocin levels can benefit greatly from wearing weighted vests, using weighted blankets, wrapping a weighted pillow around their neck, or holding a weighted stuffed animal in their lap. Interestingly, some parents have noticed that siblings who do not have the same issues are also calmed by these weighted items. This makes sense since it is sort of like getting a hug as it gives the child the same sensory feeling as touching through a hug.

3. Letting a child sit on your lap while you tell them a story or even just watch a movie is another form of hugging that will increase oxytocin.

4. Cradling a baby has the same effect as hugging a child. Baby carriers allow babies and young toddlers to get a health dose of oxytocin!

5. Pets provide another good source of oxytocin as a child pets them, hugs them, holds them, or even play wrestles with them.

6. Play wrestling with siblings and friends is really just another form of hugging and should be tolerated or even encouraged as long as it remains entirely friendly.

7. A gentle back or neck massage has the same oxytocin raising effect as hugging! This can be very effective if they've had a bad day at school or when they are sad for any reason.
Of course, these alternate forms of hugging will never trump the importance of parental hugs or hugs from other family members. However, they do contribute to an overall well-adjusted healthy child beaming with self-confidence. 

You can also combine the benefit of hugging a stuffed animal and/or doll with the benefit of your own special hug by tucking your child into bed at night with a hug from you while you put their favourite stuffed animal(s) and/or doll(s) into bed with them! In fact, you can hug the stuffed animal and/or doll and then hand it to the child for the to hug to magnify the effect even more!