Cuddles. When it comes to things you can do for your children that make a huge impact in later life – not to mention bring immediate joy – nothing beats them.
Few things are better for your tots than those moments of physical affection: the tight hug, the shoulder squeeze, the under-the-duvet snuggle.
Close contact is a wonderful way to maximise your quality time with babies and toddlers and doesn't require anything other than the two of you, sharing a blissful moment – or several – together.
Yes, we all know cuddles are important, and science has proven it, too. Check out six reasons why going all-out on cuddle time is simply the best.
Children who are cuddled more become happier adults
It's true – science says so.
According to Notre Dame psychologist Darcia Narvaez, whose research following over 600 individuals was published in the journal Applied Developmental Science in January 2016, children who have positive experiences with regards to affectionate touch, free play and family togetherness grow up to be less anxious adults. This starts with those first baby snuggles.
"Sometimes, we have parents that say, you are going to spoil the baby if you pick them up when they are feeling distressed. No, you can't spoil a baby. You are actually ruining the baby if you don't pick them up. You are ruining their development," says Narvaez.
"Part of it is following your instincts because we as parents want to hold our children. We want to keep that child close," she says.
"Follow that instinct. We want to keep the child quiet and happy because the cry is so distressing. It is on purpose, so you don't let it happen. So follow the instinct to hold, play, interact, that is what you want to do."
Cuddling releases 'love hormone' oxytocin
"Brain research tells us that oxytocin, one of the so-called ‘feel-good chemicals,’ is released into the body only after physical contact lasting about eight seconds," explains Noel Janis-Norton, parenting adviser and bestselling author of the Calmer, Easier, Happier series of books.
"So we need to make time to relax into the hugs we give our children, rather than rushing them," she advises.
Oxytocin not only makes us feel good, but helps to reduce blood pressure, lower stress levels and generally improves our mood.
Research from Dr. Kathleen C. Light at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill has found that those with the warmest physical contact at home show the highest levels of oxytocin in the laboratory: happy couples with positive long-term relationships had the most oxytocin in their bloodstreams, as did breastfeeding mothers.
Cuddles are just as important than saying 'I Love You'
Time-pressed parents may feel a quick peck on the cheek in the middle of a busy day and a shout of 'I love you' is enough to give kids the emotional well-being they need. That's not the case, according to Janis-Norton.
"Physical affection helps children to feel not only loved but also liked, appreciated and approved of," she explains.
As children get older, school, playdates, activities, parties and more can encroach on a parent's time with their little ones, not to mention the busyness of a parent's work-life-balance juggle, so it's important to set aside at least 10 minutes a day to read, chat and discuss the day that's been or plans for tomorrow. Hugs, sitting on laps, hand-holding and snuggles during this time are all encouraged.
A cuddle can help when disciplining your child
This is especially true when children are misbehaving and parents are trying to reason with them or understand their behaviour. Sometimes a cuddle can send a stronger message than words can.
"A hug can convey an acceptance of the child’s strong upset feelings and can re-establish a loving connection between parent and child," says Janis-Norton.
"This is often enough to defuse the child’s upset, whether it’s a whingey mood, a defiant stand-off or a full-scale tantrum. The result is usually a better mood and better behaviour (on the part of the parent as well as the child!).
"I’m not suggesting that cuddles can replace the need to teach our children to be cooperative or respectful, but the cuddles can make the job much easier," she says.
Cuddles in childhood help us manage stress
"Babies and young children have not evolved to be able to manage stress and upset on their own," says Dr. Lucy Brown-Wright, paediatric neuro-developmental psychologist at The Child and Family Practice.
According to Dr. Brown-Wright, children need experiences where they've been emotionally supported and responded to sensitively – for babies and small children, this means lots of one-to-one care and attention – so they can learn how to deal with all kind of emotional situations in childhood and later life.
"Through having regular positive interactions that encompass gentle soothing and cuddling when the child is upset, they are able to learn that people can be relied upon to respond to emotions. In this way we would always encourage parents to make sure that their child is demonstrably loved," she says.
"The parent is later rewarded with an older child and adult who is able to regulate their own emotions, but also enjoys a secure and trusting relationship with their parent even in times of stress," Dr. Brown-Wright concludes.
Don’t stop cuddling children as they get older
As children approach the teenage years and start to shirk off physical affection from their parents, it can be tempting to let them go and stop touching them as often.
Don’t. They still need cuddles, as well as other kinds of loving, affectionate touch, and they need to see their parents behaving in physically affectionate ways with one another.
“Sadly, in our culture, pre-teens and teens often consider it uncool to be seen having any physical contact with their parents,” says Janis-Norton.
“We can respect their feelings and reduce their discomfort by saving our physical affection for the home. But we mustn’t allow the immature teen sub-culture to dictate what we do. Continue to give lots of physical affection, every day.”