Should We Touch Our Children During a Pandemic?
How far should social distancing (i.e., body distancing) go?
We have all been advised to social distance ourselves which means that we should stay at least 6 feet away from others.
But the rules are different for families, unless a family member shows symptoms of the virus.
For parents and young children, it’s really important to keep cuddling. Why? Because you already have been sharing space, air, surfaces and thereby bacteria and viruses that you carry routinely in your bodies.
It will actually hurt children if we do not hug or cuddle them. Children’s brains and bodies expect it for promoting their sense of safety. Affectionate responsive touch is expected by young children’s bodies in order to grow well. We have seen the terrible extreme effects of monkeys and children who are not regularly cuddled, carried and rocked (Harlow, 1958; video below and here).
In research of mammals, like pigs, when young offspring are separated from the mother just for a short time, there can be long term effects on health and wellbeing (e.g., Kanitz et al., 2004). Rat pups who don’t receive normally extensive affection in the first days of life end up being forever anxious because of the epigenetic effects of caregiver touch (Meaney, 2001). The equivalent for humans would be the first months of life.
Remember too that human babies are like the fetuses of other animals till about 18 months of age when skull bones start to fuse in place (Trevathan, 2011). The best thing for a child till then is to have an “external womb” experience to grow well (Montagu, 1968). Imagine what an external womb would be like: lots of carrying, touching, rocking as well as immediate feeding when needed. And staying calm and content so the biochemistry of developing systems is growth promoting.
It’s important to know that we all always carry viruses (the virome). All animals and ecosystems have viruses that are characteristic. Human disruption of ecosystems and moving into closer contact with wild animals can lead to a transmission of an animal virus to a human, as happened with the coronavirus.We get sick when they proliferate in some fashion and our immune system is not strong enough to cope. So the focus in families should be on keeping immune systems healthy with healthy food, vitamins, good sleep and exercise. And cuddling.
Teach children good habits of coughing and sneezing into your arm, washing hands well which takes at least 20 seconds and lots of different moves, avoiding touch the face.
Then take advantage of being home together, of cocooning. Have regular cuddling times. My husband and I call it huggling, a cross between hugging and snuggling. If you have not been a cuddly family, it is never too late to start. I learned to be cuddly from the family I married into and took hugging back to my family of origin. Even just a few minutes of huggling can calm you down.
Our lab’s work shows that positive touch is correlated with positive child outcomes like self-control, happiness and prosocial skills; and adults who report more affection in childhood show higher levels of secure attachment and prosociality (Narvaez et al., 2019).
Here is a list of 10 scientifically supported benefits of touch/hugging.
And here is a blog about the benefits of touch, including massage, including of autistic kids.
Harlow, H. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.
Kanitz E, Tuchscherer M, Puppe B, Tuchscherer A, Stabenow B. (2004). Consequences of repeated early isolation in domestic piglets (Sus scrofa) on their behavioural, neuroendocrine, and immunological responses. Brain, Behavior & Immunity, 18(1), 35.
Meaney, M. J. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene X environment interactions. Child Development,81(1), 41–79.
Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.), Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford.
Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, 32:16 (open access). do
Trevathan, W.R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd Ed. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.