Let’s be real… Who doesn’t enjoy cuddling?
Harry Harlow and The Nature of Love
In 1958, Harry Harlow performed a famous study he called “The nature of love” (1). Harlow wanted to know the role touch plays in the development. He studied infant Rhesus macaques during the first few years of life (Macaques are the monkey featured in the image for this article).
Harlow set up his studies in a unique way. His set up included two surrogate mothers in a cage with each infant macaque. One surrogate mother was made up of a wire mesh and provided a source of milk. The second surrogate mother was made of wire mesh and terry cloth. One surrogate mother gave food and the other mother gave physical contact to the infant macaques.
What Harlow found was shocking to him and other researchers in the field. The infant macaques spent the majority of their time cuddling the surrogate mother with terry cloth and would only go over to the other surrogate mother for food. These results went against what mainstream science suggested at the time regarding animal behavior. Before Harlow’s study scientists assumed that the primary role of the mother was to provide food. Scientists gained a better understanding of the relationship and role mothers play in the development of their children.
What effect was cuddling the surrogate mother having on the behavior and development of the infant macaques?
When the infant was put into an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar objects it would be too scared to explore or play with anything in the room. When a terry cloth surrogate mother was present in the room the monkey would hug the surrogate mother, finding comfort in the touch, and start exploring and playing with objects in the room.
If you want to know more about Harlow’s revolutionary study you can watch this quick youtube video.
Does Cuddling Play a Role in the Development of Infant Humans?
Harlow’s study paved the way for modern scientific research investigating the role of touch plays in our lives during our early years. It gives us a sense of security and a rush of hormones that calm us down, help us deal with stress and help us bond with our mothers and fathers.
Can cuddling and human touch penetrate deeper into our biology than just mere psychological comfort?
A new study published in the Journal of Development and psychopathology shows that cuddling/human touch during the first couple years of life alters our genome and improves our epigenetic age (4). Epigenetic age is a measurement of methylation patterns within the DNA of an individual that offers an estimate of biological age. In infants, epigenetic age is used to predict the speed of development of the newborn.
The researchers found that infants who had lower than average amounts of human contact had a lower epigenetic age, providing evidence that human contact during the first couple years of life influences the development of infants on a genomic level. The slowing down of epigenetic development due to lack of human contact is thought by the researchers to be caused by increased levels of infant distress.
If you watched the Youtube video of the infant macaque exploring the room with a surrogate terry cloth mother present and without a surrogate terry cloth mother present, you will notice a striking difference. When the terry cloth surrogate mother is present the infant macaque gains the courage to explore the room as a result of the comforting touch of the mother. This is a more immediate effect touch has on behavior, but what role does human touch during infancy play in long-term behavioral and psychological development?
What are the Long-Term Psychological and Behavioral Consequences of Cuddling Newborns Regularly?
There are few studies directly addressing the role touch plays during the early years of life on behavior and psychology, but there are a few insightful studies. Touch plays a vital role in a mother’s ability to form a strong bond with her child during the first two weeks of its life. The quality of this bond is a strong predictor of behavioral problems later on in the babies life (3). Other research focuses on the consequences of lowering infant stress levels through touch during the first few years of life. Showing that babies who have more physical human contact with their mothers tend to be more resilient children, and are able to more efficiently buffer the negative effects caused by stress (2).
There seems to be absolutely no downside to cuddling! So next time you see your baby, or your future baby, give them some extra cuddles! Their mind and body will thank you later on! Your cuddles will help you form a stronger bond that will last a lifetime, and make your child more resilient and healthy over the course of their life. Here is a quick summary of the positive benefits your newborn will receive from cuddling:
- More confidence in novel situations
- Improvement in epigenetic age
- Less stress
- A stronger bond with mother/father
- More resiliency
- Fewer behavior problems
- Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American psychologist, 13(12), 673.
- Hostinar, C. E., Sullivan, R. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2014). Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the social buffering of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis: A review of animal models and human studies across development. Psychological bulletin, 140(1), 256.
- Fuchs, A., Möhler, E., Reck, C., Resch, F., & Kaess, M. (2016). The Early Mother-to-Child Bond and Its Unique Prospective Contribution to Child Behavior Evaluated by Mothers and Teachers. Psychopathology, 49(4), 211-216.
- Moore, S. R., McEwen, L. M., Quirt, J., Morin, A., Mah, S. M., Barr, R. G., … & Kobor, M. S. (2017). Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans. Development and psychopathology, 29(5), 1517-1538.