My kids are snugglers. They love to curl up on your lap, to be held and carried, and to cozy up to their parents, our pets, and to each other. I am always surprised when people remark at how affectionate they are because it is so natural. Nothing can calm an upset or help an ill child better than personal touch.
Science backs up the importance of being close to our kids. Touch advocates recount the work of Dr. Fritz Talbot who visited a children's clinic in Dseldorf in the 1940s and discovered that children who received regular touch and mothering grew and thrived, even when all medical possibilities had been exhausted. A 2001 study by Dr. Lynda Harrison showed that very brief (10 minutes twice a day) touching of premature infants significantly reduced stress behaviors. Yet another 2003 study of orphaned Korean infants demonstrated that an extra 15 minutes a day of stimulation (personal touch, auditory simulation, and eye contact) improved weight gain, head circumference, and overall health. "Kangaroo Care" has been adopted in many hospitals, encouraging skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their newborns, helping to regulate the infant's temperature and promoting better physiological outcomes and greater success with breastfeeding. The University of Arkansas even has a fun worksheet about hugs and their importance to share with friends and family!
So why is touch so controversial? Parents lament that they are spoiling their children by carrying them too much, being too affectionate. Plenty of websites back this up, advising that we should be able to walk away and set boundaries, even at the tender age of six months! Inappropriate touch and media reports of child and sexual abuse have created a rather touch-phobic culture, with devastating results. More than 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, including aphenphosmphobia, the fear of being touched. Early social experience and the deprivation of physical touch can have a long-term impact on future development. A 2005 Natural Academy of Sciences report shows that "the social attachments formed between human infants and their caregivers begin very early in postnatal life and play a critical role in children's survival and healthy adaptation."
As parents we instinctively want to hold, hug, and snuggle our children, and with good reason. A simple hug is a vital component of physiological, emotional, and social health both over the short and the long term. Parents should trust their instincts, and snuggle away, no matter the age of the child. Personal touch benefits extend way beyond childhood and may help overcome some of the disconnection of future generations. New research on a variety of touch therapies are showing positive results with geriatric patients, including improving communication and overall health with those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Physical interaction is a simple and vital aspect of well-being and a cornerstone for overcoming our detached social order. Sometimes getting back to basics is the most powerful thing we can do.