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If you’re the kind of parent who is very hands-on with your children and always offering them plenty of hugs, you might be doing more right than you’d expect. Hugs are very important to our children, perhaps in more ways than we usually realize.

A survey from just a couple years ago carried out by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio was actually able to find that the more we hug our babies the more benefits they reaped. The findings from this study/survey were published in CELL/Current Biology under the name ‘The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain.’ There were over 100 babies who partook in this study and some were full-term while others were premature. 

While it was noted that premature babies did respond to affection less than those who were not born premature, those who got the most affection overall be it by parents or hospital staff, in general, showed much stronger brain responses as a whole. When it comes to the development of the brain within these babies, affection is crucial. Because newborn babies, for the most part, experience the world through touch alone, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Science Daily wrote as follows on these findings:

“Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother’s womb,” says Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting.”

Maitre and her colleagues enrolled 125 babies born preterm at a gestational age of 24 to 36 weeks and full-term infants born at 38 to 42 weeks. Before those babies were discharged from the hospital, the researchers used a soft EEG net to measure the babies’ brain responses to a puff of air compared to a “fake” puff.

Generally speaking, those measurements showed that preterm babies were more likely than full-term babies to have a reduced brain response to gentle touch. Further analysis showed that the brain response to touch was stronger when babies in the NICU spent more time in gentle contact with their parents or healthcare providers. In contrast, the more painful medical procedures those premature infants had to endure, the less their brain responded to gentle touch later. That was true despite the fact that the babies were given pain medications and sugar to make those procedures easier to endure.

“We certainly hoped to see that more positive touch experiences in the hospital would help babies have a more typical perception of touch when they went home,” Maitre says. “But, we were very surprised to find out that if babies experience more painful procedures early in life, their sense of gentle touch can be affected.”

This whole concept makes it a lot more prominent that we need to provide positive touch in the world NICU but also reminds us that as parents our children need our affection. While we can give our children a roof over their heads, food to eat, and clothes to wear that’s not all that they need. They need our love and our kindness to really flourish properly.