Picking up and cuddling a baby or young child isn't just a sweet gesture; it's also an important contributor to the mental, social, emotional and physical health of the child. A lack of parental affection can affect everything from how early the child starts puberty to her emotional stability as an adult, and the effects can persist throughout a person's entire life.
Showing Affection in Infancy
In infancy, skin-to-skin contact is essential for proper mental development, according to developmental psychology researcher Ann Bigelow. Newborns who get this type of affection are calmer and sleep better than those who don't. They also develop the ability to recognize caregivers earlier than touch-deprived babies do, which makes the overall bond stronger.
Long-Term Mental Health
A study published in the "Journal of Epidemiology and Health" in 2010 found that babies who received more maternal affection at 8 months old were more emotionally resilient as adults. In particular, these adults had much lower levels of anxiety than their peers who had received less affection as babies. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, may be to blame for this effect. Children who receive plenty of affection have lower cortisol levels well into adulthood. While the study specifically looked at the interaction between mothers and babies, affection from fathers and other caregivers also contributes to more balanced cortisol levels, according to research published in 2011 in the journal "Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience." However, these researchers also cautioned that when affectionate parents become overly protective, this can also increase cortisol levels in the child.
Studies done in the 1990s on Romanian orphans who received little to no affection from orphanage personnel indicate that a lack of affection from caregivers in early childhood can stunt a child's physical growth as well as his emotional development. These orphans, who were almost completely denied affection during their early years, were on average much shorter and weighed much less than their peers. Affection from parents can also affect the timing of puberty: a 1999 study in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" found that girls who had experienced higher levels of mother-daughter affection or father-daughter affection started puberty later than girls who were deprived of this affection.
Parental affection comes in many forms. Parents can offer plenty of hugs, kisses and cuddles to young children, and babies may benefit from infant massage or being carried and held frequently. Physical affection is a necessary component, but positive verbal statements and expressions of love are also part of an affectionate home life throughout your child's development.
- Journal of Epidemiology and Health: Mother's Affection at 8 Months Predicts Emotional Distress in Adulthood
- Scientific American: How Important Is Physical Contact with Your Infant?
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Quality of Early Family Relationships and Individual Differences in the Timing of Pubertal Maturation in Girls: a Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model
- Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: Early Environment Affects Neuroendocrine Regulation in Adulthood
- NPR: Researchers Still Learning from Romania's Orphans
- Integrated Sociopsychology: Romanian Orphans Study
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