A new study shows that children's brains need physical affection in order to develop properly, especially in infancy.
I’m a hugger — always have been, and I thought I always would be. But right about the time that I had as many children as I have limbs, I began to experience the strangest sensation at the end of the day. It was this overwhelming, visceral desire for everyone to just stop touching me.
I was touched-out. Years of breastfeeding, rocking, toddler kisses, goodnight hugs, and little feet kicking me in the back at night had exhausted my appreciation for giving (and receiving) physical affection. My uncharacteristic desire to be left alone was so acute that my husband actually sent me to the beach alone for Mother’s Day — and it was glorious.
Nevertheless, I hated turning away from my kids’ affection. I felt like it was so wrong to ask them not to touch me, or to sit in a chair alone instead of letting them pile on top of me on the couch. They seemed to need physical affection in the same way they needed food when they got angry or sleep when they got deliriously hyper.
In fact, my instincts were correct — a new study has proven that children’s brains need physical affection in order to develop properly, especially in infancy:
One hundred and twenty-five babies, both premature and full-term, were included in the study, which looked at how well they responded to being physically touched. The results indicated that premature babies responded to affection less than babies who were not born premature. What was also revealed however, was that babies that were subjected to more affection by parents or hospital staff showed stronger brain response.
Dr. Nathalie Maitre, the lead researcher on the study, told Science Daily that skin-to-skin care is particularly important for premature babies, as it helps their brains develop a response to touch that is similar to the response of babies who spent 40 full weeks inside the womb.
But even for full-term babies, gentle touch and physical affection is absolutely necessary for sensory development and continues to remain vital for children throughout childhood and adolescence. Parental warmth and physical affection is positively associated with everything from higher self-esteem and academic excellence to reduced risk for teen pregnancy and mental illness.
Fortunately for my kids (and me!), reversing my hug burnout proved as simple as laying down strict bedtime rules. No more climbing into our bed at night — but I did provide sleeping rolls stashed away underneath it, in case of nightmares or a snoring sibling. Once I began getting a full night of solitary sleep, the touched-out feeling faded quickly — just in time for baby #5’s arrival.