Saturday 21st January was National Hugging Day so we’re delving into the benefits that an all-important hug can bring for our children and their overall feelings of well-being and connection. A hug literally has the power to change someone’s day!

Firstly, if you are not a natural, gregarious, hugger, please do read on!

This is not just for the huggers amongst us.

It’s true, isn’t it? Some of us are more prone to hugging, we’ll hug anyone (within reason). For others, hugs are reserved for those nearest and dearest. And, if it’s true for us, it’s also true for our children.

Whichever of the two categories you fall into, one of the important points to recognise is that the benefit of hugs comes from wanted hugs. Of course, an uninvited, unwanted hug is not going to have the same benefits!

So, why are hugs so good for us?

Hugs, or indeed other forms of physical touch, send a signal from the skin to the brain which has a positive effect on our nervous system.

When we exchange hugs, we have an increase in oxytocin (the hormone which is linked to building a bond with our babies, through breastfeeding and with attachment and trust for example).

Touch is an infant’s first interaction with the world. Touch and the release of oxytocin is linked to brain development in infants (so we help our children to be smarter!) and oxytocin stimulates the growth hormone.

In fact, children who have touch restricted in the early years show a failure to thrive – this is something that we often hear about as a result of babies being in large, under-resourced orphanages.

You see, hugs are important, as:

  • They strengthens our relationships. Hugging our children not only helps to build a lasting bond and develop trust, it strengthens our relationships and can build resilience. This is because oxytocin counters and regulates the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
  • They can help our children to emotionally self-regulate. When our child is finding it difficult to manage emotions, or perhaps a toddler who is having a ‘tantrum’, a hug can help to release emotions and bring calm and emotional support.
  • They reduce feelings of stress and improve feelings of well-being. Although we no longer have to hunt for our supper, fight off other tribes or fight off animals with big teeth, we still find ourselves dealing with stress on a day-to-day basis. This is also true for our children who may be struggling with friendships, emotions or school pressures, or even with challenges within the family.
  • Hugs can even help your sleep. Oxytocin reduces stress and has a calming effect. In so doing, it reduces anxiety which aids better sleep. What’s more, the benefits are two way – the oxytocin is increased for both the recipient and the giver.
  • Our children feel loved and connected. When we hug our children, we are reminding them that they are safe and that they are cared for.

An absence of hugs

Lockdown highlighted the struggles that take place when humans have physical contact restricted.  This restriction led to an increase in:

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Loneliness
  • And a reduced ability to cope with physical pain

By increasing our oxytocin (through hugs and physical contact), we increase our feeling of connection, improve immunity, lower heart rate and blood pressure and better cope with pain. We have an increased feeling of attachment, security, and increased feelings of intimacy.

So, hugs are good for us – they are good for our physical and mental well-being!

What if you or your child are not huggers?

You can increase oxytocin in others ways!

The good news is that even those of us who aren’t natural huggers tend to enjoy hugs from those close to us.

Any form of skin-to-skin touch has a positive effect. Take a look at these ideas below:

  1. Consider other forms of skin-to-skin contact. It might be that your child likes to have their back rubbed, their hair brushed or their arm stroked, or that they allow you to hold their hand whilst shopping. This all counts!
  2. Reserve cuddles for certain times. If the idea of cuddling doesn’t come naturally to you or your child, perhaps limit hugs to certain times. For example, it might be that hugs or cuddles are reserved for time in front of the television or watching a film as a family.
  3. Find other ways to increase oxytocin. For example, this might be through skin contact in sport. Did you know that even walking stimulates pressure receptors on the feet, leading to improved feelings of well-being as a result of the inevitable oxytocin release?
  4. Get the pets involved! Contact with pets, such as stroking a dog for example, stimulates pressure on the skin and sends signals from the skin to the brain, creating a positive effect on the nervous system. The benefits on well-being through cuddling a pet are well-documented so this can be a great place to start.
  5. Offer short moments of physical contact. If you child is hug-averse, regularly offer them short moments of physical contact, checking that this is wanted, and that they are comfortable. Remind them that they have the right to refuse and encourage conversations about what does make them feel good, safe and connected.

Above all, remember, we can use this as an opportunity to support our children in setting up healthy boundaries.

There may be many reasons for if a child is not comfortable with physical touch. This may be due to neurodiversity, or linked to other challenges in early years, or may just be your child’s natural preference. Being open and giving options that work for them will help to reduce their stress and anxiety and will increase their serotonin (another feel good hormone).

Giving children the power to refuse or accept a hug is so important for their feelings of self-worth and their sense of power and control over their own body. You may want to set up other alternatives for them, suggesting a high five, a fist bump or a handshake, or even just a wave as a suitable response to greeting someone.

Whether you like to limit hugs, or you hug everyone you greet, be assured that hugs are good for you and for your children. They improve overall well-being, reduce stress and depression, build trust and connection.

So, who are you going to hug today? (With permission!)