A baby’s first year in the world is full of many developmental milestones, but not a lot of words are exchanged. Verbal language is scarce, of course, and exactly how a bond develops between infant and caregiver is still the subject of some mystery.
Hugs, however, may be key.
A study from Japan indicates that babies as young as 4 months are calm when a parent or their primary caregiver gives them a hug, reacting differently than they do when they are simply being held, fed or squeezed.
The research differentiates between hugs and simply being held. The former is a spontaneous physical display of affection that carries no alternative purpose, whereas caregivers typically hold babies to transport them or feed them. The study sought to determine whether babies were just favorably responding to the application of pressure, or if they could sense meaning behind the action and corresponding sensations.
Researchers used the infants’ heartbeat rate to measure their level of comfort when being hugged by a stranger versus their caregiver. When a parent hugged an infant who was older than 4 months, the researchers found the babies’ heart rate slowed. This indicated that the babies found the hug soothing.
Those under 4 months, however, had similar measures for hugs and being held, implying younger babies were unable to differentiate between the two types of touch.
Importantly, the babies weren’t the only ones who benefited from the hugs — researchers noted that they lowered caregivers’ heart rates as well, suggesting parents found the hug calming as well.
Babies, it seems, learn early what we all know: In life, nothing beats a loving hug.