Therese Bernstein, MSN, APRN, CPNP, FNP-BC, IBCLC
Yesterday we celebrated my mom’s 79th birthday. I was excited to celebrate her special day and wish her a happy birthday. I brought mom a cake and without thinking I approached her with outstretched arms to give her a hug and suddenly I stopped. I pulled myself back and cried, sadly remembering that touching was not allowed.
Touch is an integral part of human interaction and an extremely powerful form of communication. The essence of a warm embrace, a kiss, a gentle touch or just holding hands is how we say Hello, I love you, I’m sorry, or I care. Touch is a basic sense that allows us to connect with our family and friends and often we do not realize the many ways we touch someone. Perhaps we have taken some of these simple common gestures for granted. In the new world of COVID we now wear masks, practice social distancing, and physical contact such as a hug, a pat on the back, and even a high five is forbidden. COVID-19 has deprived us of the connection and physical comfort that a simple touch gives us at a time when we may need it the most. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I appreciate how the lack of human touch during this unprecedented time has impacted the physical and mental wellbeing of people of all ages, especially children. Every day I see how the lack of touch is contributing to increased stress and anxiety. In fact, when I started asking children how many hugs they got today, I was saddened to hear some say none. The consequences of touch starvation are real.
A baby’s first experience with the outside world is the sense of touch. It is well documented that skin to skin contact is important for bonding and attachment and essentially, touch is the beginning of communication between a mother and child.
Studies confirm that touch has many important health benefits. Physical touch, such as hugging, is known to activate the release of the hormone oxytocin and reduces cortisol levels leading to decreased anxiety, stress and depression. It also boosts the immune system and helps to maintain a child’s physical health. Touch stimulates a child’s brain and is important for normal growth and development. Furthermore, touch has been shown to foster strong bonds between a parent and child.
Increased stress and anxiety related to physical distancing and the uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is having many negative effects on children which can be manifested as sleep disturbances, nightmares, poor appetite, and behavioral problems. For parents, the fear of unintentionally spreading COVID-19 to their own child is of great concern and justifiably protecting their children from the virus is of utmost importance. However, as each of us rationalize the CDC guidelines associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the necessity of social distancing and wearing masks, it is critically important that we also realize the negative impact that touch deprivation has on children. Encouraging parents to cuddle with their children in their homes may help offset the consequences that being touch starved may bring.
Hugging is a form of touch important to the emotional, cognitive and physical development of children. Hugging makes children feel safe and secure, makes them smarter, boosts self-esteem, and creates happiness. Everyone can benefit from a hug. It’s really a win-win situation for all! We know that touch fulfils an emotional need and extended periods without physical contact can be significantly detrimental for children. The long-term consequences from this pandemic are yet to be seen and it is unclear how long this pandemic will last. Without a doubt there is a “new normal”. We have endured 8 months of this “new norm” and we could easily have to continue protecting ourselves for many more months to come. Avoiding touch with our children should not and cannot be a trend that continues. Parents, because you can, grab your children, wrap your arms around them and hug them many times a day for their health and yours! Remember touch is essential and there is no substitution for a great big hug! As author and family therapist Virginia Satir once said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth”.