Just a hug! But are all hugs really the same? Not for babies
Nella nostra cultura gli abbracci, e il contatto fisico più in generale, non sono qualcosa a cui ci apriamo indiscriminatamente, ma veicola l’idea di un legame di conoscenza (e presumibilmente di fiducia) con l’altra persona coinvolta. Come vivono gli abbracci i neonati?
Advertising message Following the tragic attack in 2013 during the Boston Marathon, Ken E. Nwadike Jr., American documentary maker and peace activist, founded the Free Hugs Project movement, in an attempt to reduce the episodes of violence during protests and political demonstrations. The initiative soon gained a lot of popularity. A hug, even if offered by a stranger, communicates “You are not a threat, I am not afraid of being near you. I can relax, feel at home. I am protected, and someone understands me. “
However, not everyone is willing to be embraced by a stranger: the motivations can range from a simple individual disposition towards physical contact to cultural customs, from prejudice towards the other individual to the reasonable instinct of self-preservation that warns us about what we do not know. In fact, in our culture hugs, as well as physical contact more generally, are not something we open up indiscriminately, but it conveys the idea of a bond of knowledge (and presumably of trust) with the other person involved.
The life of children, especially if very young, however, represents a violation of this basic assumption; often, in fact, new mothers are faced with the myriad of requests from acquaintances, relatives more or less distant, if not even perfect strangers who claim to touch, squeeze, cradle or kiss their baby, regardless of the effect that the encounter with another, stranger, may have on the small. In fact, even the scientific literature has considerable gaps in this sense and only rarely have we departed from the confirmatory research about the importance of the relationship with the caregiver (Bowlby, 1969, 1977; Sullivan et al., 2011),
Since infants depend almost entirely on adults for their survival, the opportunities for physical contact, whether during breastfeeding or artificial breastfeeding, on the occasion of daily movements or interactions are extremely frequent: it has also been documented that the ‘being taken in the arms while the parent walks has a generalized calming effect on newborns in the first months, who almost immediately stop crying and voluntary movements (Esposito et al., 2013). The embrace, however, goes beyond caring practices related to the physiological needs of the child, but is configured as an expression of affection, closeness and love exclusively aimed at the formation of a two-way emotional bond between the parent and their offspring.
A recent study conducted by Yoshida and colleagues (2020) sought to empirically verify whether the embrace of a parent was distinguishable from that of another adult, evaluating the different effects, in particular by choosing to analyze their heartbeats, intended as a reflection of the physiological activation of the newborn, as well as the bodily movements of the infant in response to the various stimulations received.
Advertising message The skin receptors are already forming between the 4th and 7th week of gestation, followed by the development of somatosensory functions (Bremner & Spence, 2017), therefore children are naturally able to appreciate the difference between being simply taken in arm, being hugged or being held tight in the chest, three conditions that researchers have chosen to evaluate.
Furthermore, it was decided to conduct the experiment involving both parents, to evaluate the possible gender and likely difference in parental care, which foresee an almost irrefutable primacy of the mother over the father, especially where breastfeeding is present as well as the presence guaranteed by maternity leave which rarely meets a paternal consideration which allows a more equal distribution of care in the first months. As a further experimental condition, women with previous parenting experiences who were not familiar to the children were involved, to check if the supposed calming effect of a hug persisted also in this case.
The results showed that there were no appreciable differences in the reactions of infants from four months of age when they were embraced by the father or mother, registering a decrease in the frequency of the beats and a comparable calming effect; on the contrary instead of what happened in the first four months of life, a period in which there were no appreciable differences between the touch of a parent or that of a stranger and the only discriminating factor in determining the calming effect was represented by the increase in the pressure exerted on the child’s body (simply being held in the arm vs. being embraced). This result is in line with the late maturation of parasympathetic activity (Eyre et al. 2014; Massin et al., 1997) which would explain how the calming effect guaranteed by the embrace of a parent becomes appreciable towards the age of four months, while until then only the effect of activating the sympathetic system can be clearly seen, that is when on the part of the adult, whether familiar or unknown, he exceeded the levels of pleasantness, as in the condition of “being tightened tight” in the chest. In addition, the calming effect of the embrace appears to be bidirectional, as a decrease in cardiac activity was also found in parents when holding their baby. be it familiar or unknown, it exceeded the levels of pleasantness, as in the condition of “being tightened tight” in the chest. In addition, the calming effect of the embrace appears to be bidirectional, as a decrease in cardiac activity was also found in parents when holding their baby. be it familiar or unknown, it exceeded the levels of pleasantness, as in the condition of “being tightened tight” in the chest. In addition, the calming effect of the embrace appears to be bidirectional, as a decrease in cardiac activity was also found in parents when holding their baby.
Statistical analyzes conducted on the quality of the movements of newborns have revealed that starting from four months, when the motor activity becomes more autonomous and voluntary, a greater detection of head movements, an index of exploratory activity in children, correlated with a lower decrease in heartbeats and in fact a lower calming effect: the children were therefore more active when they were interrupted by the embrace, although these exploratory movements presume, also according to the literature, the presence of a “safe base” constituted precisely by the mother who reassures them enough to allow it (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970); consistently,
Future studies could expand the results obtained by evaluating other neuropsychological profiles, such as in the Autistic spectrum, where precisely in the interaction with the primary caregivers, indications of atypical development could be found early (Wan et al. 2019).