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Study: Infants Differentiate Between A Parent and Stranger’s Hug

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On to some feel-good health news (for a change), according to a recent study, infants (as young as four months old) can tell between a stranger giving them a hug, versus their own parents.

That first year a baby is born can be pivotal in terms of emotional and physiological development. Despite the extensive research around this, there is still so much unknown when it comes to the connections established between child and parent in the early months of a baby’s life.

This recent research stems from Tokyo, Japan’s Toho University. First author, Sachine Yoshida, chimed in on this study stating that while parents love to hug their children, children too love this affection from their parents. With that said, he added that with this known concept, little is still not known about the act of hugging itself.

The study revealed that the heart rate of a baby, as young as four months, will relax when a primary caregiver or parent hugs them. Interestingly enough, simple feedings or being held does not create that same rate change – not even a tight embrace.

The study goes on to state that hugging, versus holding a baby, offers two very different objectives. Holding a baby provides position for carrying the infant, or feeding them, and acts as a posture function. Meanwhile, a hug is an expression of affection, which, as the researchers notes offers, “joy, love, happiness, and warmth.”

Since hugging and holding provide similar applied degrees of pressure on the baby, the research team wondered if infants would positively respond to any type of application of pressure – whether it be holding or a hug.

As per the study, when the RRI ratio, which is the reciprocal of a heartbeat rate, increases, the heartbeat lowers. A higher RRI ratio value signals more relaxation on the baby’s part. Therefore, when a baby’s RRI ratio heightens, this essentially offers a positive feeling from the child.

Within the study, the team measured (infant) participant’s RRI ratio when held or hugged by a stranger, versus a primary caregiver or parent. In each instance, a parent or stranger would lift the baby from their crib, and either hold, hug, or hug tightly for approximately 20 seconds, and then return them to the crib in the position they were in prior to lifting them up.

Electrocardiogram electrodes where attached to the infants to follow RRI ratios, and an accelerometer offered data around movements.

Babies that were older than four months had RRI ratios increase when hugged by parents, offering some insight around the hug creating a calm in the child.  Interestingly enough, no change in RRI ratios when a child was simply held – by either parent or stranger. Babies that were four months and older also showed an increased RRI ratio when hugged by parents, versus strangers.

The research revealed that the RRI ratios did not change for babies under the age of four months that were either held or hugged, indicating that newborns and infants cannot differentiate between the two actions.

So, keep hugging those babies (and children) tight, parents! They clearly love it as much as we do. Unless, we are talking about teenagers, who may or may not dispute this claim!

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