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Hugs May Play Important Role in Infant-Parent Bond

A new Japanese study offers some of the first hard evidence that hugs may play an important role in early bonding between parents and their infants.

For the study, researchers from Toho University in Tokyo, Japan observed heart rate responses in babies less than one year old and found that children as young as four months experience greater heart rate slowing during a hug than a hold — and during a hug from their parent as compared to a hug from a stranger.

The study findings are published in iScience, an open-access journal from Cell Press.

“Like most parents, we love to hug our children,” said first author Dr. Sachine Yoshida of Toho University. “We also know that children love to be hugged by their parents. But what surprised us as scientists is how little we know about hugging.”

One question in the study was whether a hug itself was calming or whether any increase in pressure — for instance, from being held — could be soothing. To begin to investigate this, Yoshida along with Dr. Hiromasa Funato and their colleagues examined heart rate responses in infants less than one year old during a hold, a hug, and a tight hug. They also looked at what happens when a female stranger did the hugging instead.

“The infants older than four months old showed a high increase ratio of heartbeat intervals during hugging by their parents than by female strangers,” Yoshida said. “Parents also showed a high increase ratio of heartbeats intervals by hugging their infants. We found that both infants and parents come to relax by hugging.”

The research team also reports that both parents and infants show an increase during a hug in what’s known as the R-R interval (RRI) on an electrocardiogram. The R-R interval is the time between a particular waveform that measures electrical activity of the heart. The increased time indicates a slowed heart rate.

Babies younger than four months didn’t show the same RRI increase during a hug, according to the study. But those young infants did show a slowed heart rate when a parent’s hand put pressure on his or her back while being held, suggesting that they didn’t make the same distinction as older infants between being held and being hugged.

The research team says that they had expected a hug would lead to obvious changes in an infant’s behavior, such as turning a fussy mood into a good one, perhaps. But what surprised them was that the calming effects of a hug that they observed could only be detected in infants who were neither crying nor fussy.

“Due to this inconspicuous feature, we think that the experimental data indicating the relaxing effect of a parent-infant hug had been a missing piece for a while, even though there was much situational evidence,” Funato said.

“Your baby loves to be hugged and loves how you hug your baby,” Yoshida said. “Even though infants cannot speak, they recognize their parents through various parenting methods, including hugging, after four months old at latest. We hope that knowing how your baby feels while being hugged help ease the physical and psychological workload of taking care of infants too young to speak.”

Source: Cell Press

Hugs May Play Important Role in Infant-Parent Bond

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Hugs May Play Important Role in Infant-Parent Bond. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Apr 2020 (Originally: 8 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Apr 2020
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