I remember as if it was yesterday, the sudden reality of parenthood when our son came into the world 31 years ago. Everything changes with the birth of your first child. He was a beautiful baby boy, but he was not a good sleeper. He had colic for the first five months. Helping him sleep required endless rocking, swinging in his baby swing, a drive in the car, singing and dancing to silly songs and soothing of every imaginable kind. If left alone in his crib to get himself to sleep, it would be worse. It was if he was afraid to go to sleep. When he would howl, he looked both terrified and angry. The only thing that seemed to help was the comfort of human touch.
Back then as a new and loving father, as recent child psychology and family therapy graduate, I was concerned and puzzled by what might be going on in my son’s tiny little body and brain that made it so hard to become calm. Then as now, the cause of colic remains a mystery to medical science. As any parent can tell you, it is extremely stressful as new parents. As a parent, it hurts to see your baby in pain. We worried we were doing something wrong. All we could figure out is that cuddling, rocking and physical touch worked so much better than leaving him in his crib.
In transition from being awake to falling asleep, we know that our fears must be soothed, our minds must become quiet. We learn how to make these transitions to calm and quiet in childhood when parents provide bedtime routines. Bedtime stories, cuddling, lying together followed by good night kisses and hugs and “I love you” help sooth, calm the mind and make us feel cared about.
This need to be held and soothed does not end with childhood. All human beings need comfort from others from birth to death. In our intimate relationships, we need a good night kiss, a snuggle, a hug. It helps us sleep when we feel loved. Even couples who sleep separately because one snores loudly, need contact before falling asleep. Studies show that for both men and women, there is higher relationship satisfaction when they sleep together.
Just as we humans need bedtime routines with those we love to transition from being awake to being asleep, we also need ways to acknowledge the transition from being together to being apart. We need a ‘Good Morning’ greeting when we wake, a ‘Good Bye’ send off as we leave home for work and a welcome home hug when we get back together.
Researchers can show why it is so important to be hugged. Thanks to the advancement of technology and the invention of the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) we know that what neural activity occurs in the brain when hugged. The neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin has been called the ‘cuddle hormone’. According to Sue Johnson in her book Love Sense, it is more accurately described as master chemical of social connection.
Both sexes have oxytocin receptors in our brains, but oxytocin levels are generally higher in women. Oxytocin is released during breast feeding and orgasm. It is also released whenever we are physically near those we love. In fact by just by thinking about our loved one can trigger a rush of this hormone. Furthermore, oxytocin turns off our threat detector, the amygdala which activates fear and the readiness to fight or flee. Oxytocin turns on the calming parasympathetic nervous system. A hug or kiss helps pull the emotional switch from stress and anxiety to relaxation, comfort and loving feelings. Perhaps this is why my infant son with colic needed to be held, snuggled and rocked.
The Welcome Home Hug
Stan Tatkin in his book Wired For Love says that couples with busy lives need to establish and use bedtime and morning rituals as well as reunion rituals to stay connected. By helping your partner feel more relaxed, comforted and loved you strengthen the relationship and in a mutually reciprocal relationship they will do the same for you.
Here is an exercise he suggests.
- Today or tomorrow when your partner comes home from work, take time to fully greet them. If you look into each other’s eyes, keep looking keep looking until you can see your partner’s eyes focus and soften. Don’t stop until you see that happen. If you embrace, don’t let go until you feel the other fully relax. No skimping permitted.
- Notice how you feel after this brief ritual. Is your household more peaceful? Are there any benefits beyond the two of you, the kids, or even the pets?
Have you noticed that hugging is more common in our culture these days than a few decades ago? Girls and women have been hugging for a while and now many boys and men are doing the same. The hug seems to be replacing the handshake within some circles. A firm handshake with good eye contact was the greeting my father taught me to give him and others as a sign of confidence and respect. Now my 31-year-old son and I give each other a hug. I like that. It is a little more loving. It helps to remind me of the time, not so long ago, when I held my baby son in my arms trying to calm him.