Hugs are universal, reciprocal, and as individual as the people who are giving and receiving them. And your baby knows yours. When you pull your baby in close and wrap your arms around them, you benefit, too. A language without words, fulfilling the primal urge to belong and be safe, that hug can make both of you feel relieved and happy, creating that strong bond that enables you to offer them freely, compelling you to want to care for your baby even more.
Hugging your baby has a special relaxing effect on them by how they are hugged, as well as by who is hugging them. By measuring their heart rate, researchers at Toho University in Tokyo, Japan, studied babies up to one year old and were able to determine that a baby knows the difference between getting a hug that wraps them up soft and cozy so they can feel relief, comfort and affection, versus being held for feeding or carrying.
The researchers also were able to determine that a baby knows the difference between who is holding them—a parent or a stranger. The information gathered in this study and others can help shine a light on a baby's experience in their little world.
How does hugging relax babies?
You have an autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is divided into two branches that work in opposite ways to regulate many functions and parts of your body. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is protective and evolutionary—it prepares your body for the "fight or flight" response during a potentially dangerous or stressful situation by increasing your heart rate and breathing, among other things. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is restorative and calming—it basically does the opposite by keeping your body from overworking by decreasing your respiration and heart rate, relaxing you and increasing your digestion when you are resting or eating. Your heart rate can increase or decrease, depending on whether your PNS or SNS is activated.
Babies are able to tell the difference between a soft or tight hug, or just being held, because the receptors on their skin have been present and working since just seven weeks in utero, allowing them to feel the pressure differences. Hugging can increase or decrease your baby's heart rate, depending on how old they are, who is hugging them and what kind of a hug they are getting—all of which stimulates the ANS and causes activity in either the SNS, which increases their heart rate, or the PNS, which decreases their heart rate and relaxes them.
What happens when you hug your baby?
For babies older than four months, your hug stimulates their maturing PNS to lower their heart rate and relax them, though just being held for carrying or feeding does not. On the other hand, a hug from a stranger can increase their heart rate, likely because of the stress caused by being held by someone new has activated their SNS.
In babies younger than four months old, hugs aren't necessarily relaxing. Their heart rate does not increase or decrease when being held or hugged by you or a stranger (and not because they don't recognize you—in fact, other studies have shown that newborns already prefer the face of their mother over that of a stranger). This is because their PNS has not developed fully yet so they are governed mostly by their SNS, which generally isn't triggered by just a hug.
But for both younger and older babies, a tight hug from you or a stranger increases your baby's heart rate. Likely this is because it doesn't feel right, so it's stressful and stimulates SNS's fight or flight response.
How do babies know what a hug means?
Before your baby can understand your words, they can understand your touch. Physical contact with you is not enough to trigger a heart rate response—it has to be a hug from you, mama, to be the special, warm and relaxing experience that communicates the love you feel in your heart.
Does your baby benefit from being hugged?
Not only is that relaxing decrease in your baby's heart rate when you hug them one of the most important responses that helps foster a sense of acceptance and empathy in your baby, those hugs from you help to wire your baby's brain, ensuring the healthy emotional and cognitive development that lays the foundation for stronger relationships later in life.
Plus, hugging can help to keep your baby healthy. By helping them relax, your hugs promote your baby's sense of wellbeing and decrease their stress level, which lowers their levels of the stress hormone corticosteroid that can suppress the effectiveness of their immune system.
Do you bond with your baby by hugging them?
You and your baby are programmed to connect. The hugs you give your baby may be the first bonds between you, having a calming effect on both of you. Hugging kicks into gear your own PNS, stimulating the release of oxytocin to help you and your baby relax. Frequent hugs have been associated with high oxytocin levels, which play an important role in shaping your relationship with your baby through touch.
Babies love hugs, especially yours, mama.
Warm like a blanket, your hugs envelope your baby in the safety and security of your arms where they feel the love you can't tell them yet, but they can feel brimming from your heart. This is the beginning of them knowing they can rely on you, to trust that you will be there for them. And it is through this sublime form of communication of love, trust and safety that babies are nourished and sustained. The hugs you give them now fill the well of strength they will draw upon as they venture out, knowing that your arms are there for them when they need to know and feel your love and support to carry on.