A need for affection!

Whether it’s a hug, a smile, a peck on the cheek, or a loving glance, shows of affection are essential for your child. Not only are they comforting, but they also promote healthy brain development and learning.

Continue

Thank goodness for hugs!

Children who are shown affection feel loved. Touch, comfort, and attentiveness help them feel soothed, safe, and open to the world.

By Julie Leduc

Children who are shown affection feel loved. Touch, comfort, and attentiveness help them feel soothed, safe, and open to the world.

Affection is crucial for a child’s development. During infancy, when a child is fully dependent on their parents, affection is largely communicated through care and attention. “Being aware of your baby’s needs, responding quickly when they cry, feeding them lovingly, and making sure they have a clean diaper are all signs of affection that help establish a strong parent-child bond,” explains neuropsychologist Dr. Isabelle Bourgault.

When children receive mindful affection from their parents, they understand that they’re loved and valued. They feel safe, which gradually builds their self-esteem, giving them the confidence they need to explore their surroundings and learn new things.

Hugs for a healthy brain

To develop properly, the brain needs stimulation. Every time you look at your baby, cuddle them, or speak to them softly, you’re not only showing them affection; you’re also helping to shape their brain. For example, the brain region involved in memory, learning, and emotion regulation develops better in children who receive a lot of affection.

“The neural networks associated with pleasure, learning, and concentration develop more when children are shown affection,” says Dr. George Tarabulsy, a professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology and scientific director of the Centre de recherche universitaire sur les jeunes et les familles (CRUJeF), a research centre within the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale. “In children who grow up in adverse environments, neural networks related to vigilance become more prominent.”

When you show your child affection, they feel valued.

Behaviours that express love and comfort also help children learn to manage their emotions. “They’re able to be more attentive to their surroundings,” says Dr. Tarabulsy. “Newborns need help to regulate their negative emotions, and their developing brains respond to affection.”

Hugs and kisses also send feel-good messages to the brain. “When children are cuddled, comforted, and pampered, they feel good,” says Dr. Bourgault. “They feel soothed and reassured, and their stress levels drop. As a result, they’re better able to learn.”

Behaviour and self-confidence

Affection also has a positive effect on a child’s behaviour. “When a child feels loved and understood by their parents, and trusts them implicitly, they tend to be more cooperative at home,” says Dr. Tarabulsy. This means they have an easier time following instructions.

Furthermore, children who get help when they need it and receive lots of affection have good self-esteem. “It helps develop their autonomy and ability to trust others,” says Dr. Bourgault. “They’re able to build strong relationships with others and seek help from people other than their parents.”

Different ages, different needs

 A child will always need love and affection. Certain needs, however, will take precedence at different stages of their development.

Birth to 1 year: Over the first 12 months, basic care is a parent’s primary means of conveying affection. “In short, you need to be responsive to your baby’s cries, meet their needs, and stimulate their senses,” says Dr. Bourgault. “For instance, talk to your baby and make eye contact during a diaper change. Touch, hold, rock, wear, and cuddle your baby so they can become familiar with your smell. It will make them feel safe and help you create a strong attachment bond.”

1 to 2 years: At this age, your child is becoming more confident as they explore and try new things. Despite their growing independence, they still need reassurance. Routines, for instance, help them feel safe and calm. What’s more, these everyday moments are opportunities to give your little one extra affection. For example, you can give your child a bear hug after scooping them from the bath, rock them before bed, or sing them a lullaby after lights-out.

2 to 3 years: This is the age when children want to assert themselves and do things by themselves. Since they’re not always able to do what they want, they often get frustrated and struggle to manage their emotions. This can lead to tantrums. It’s very important that you continue to be affectionate with your child, even when they’re kicking and screaming. Keep calm and stay close to make sure they don’t hurt themself. When the tantrum is over, hold your child to comfort them. Try to help them verbalize what happened. Little by little, they’ll learn to accept these moments of frustration and express their feelings in different ways. At certain times, your child may prefer to be comforted by one parent over the other. This is simply a way for them to assert their independence.

3 to 5 years: Your child still needs affection but is increasingly independent and enjoys spending time with other kids. Of course, you can continue to cuddle and rock them. However, according to Dr. Tarabulsy, it’s also important to respect their boundaries and not force them to give or receive hugs or kisses. “Don’t worry,” he says, “your child will come snuggle up when they want to.” You can still express your love in other ways (e.g., through play, encouragement, words). Tucking your child in at bedtime and taking a moment to talk about their day can also be a great way of showing that you care.

As they become more independent, children will also seek out affection from other important adults in their lives (e.g., grandparents, friends, educators, teachers).

When a parent struggles to show affection

Cuddling, snuggling, and kissing often come naturally with a baby. However, some parents become less affectionate as their child grows up. Adults who weren’t shown outward affection in childhood may also have a harder time being affectionate.

Dr. Tarabulsy believes that parents who aren’t comfortable giving hugs and kisses can express their love in other ways. “Being available for your child, playing games with them, reading them stories, having conversations, and asking them questions are all great ways to show affection.

That said, if your child is crying, hurt, or feeling sick, physical contact and hugs are important ways of comforting them. The bottom line is that “a positive reaction occurs when you take a child in your arms and hug them,” says Dr. Tarabulsy. “It makes them feel good. Touch fosters emotion regulation, which children need help with.” Dr. Bourgault agrees: “If your little one is reaching for you, and you’re available, the ideal way to respond is to pick them up or cuddle them.” If you can’t pick them up right away, tell your child that you understand what they need and that you’ll be with them as soon as possible.

A thousand ways to show affection!

There are countless ways to show your child you love them. Read how these 10 parents express their affection for their kids.
There are countless ways to show your child you love them. Read how these 10 parents express their affection for their kids.

“My favourite part of the day is when Ariel crawls into bed with us in the morning, sometimes with a book or a doll to play with. On weekends, the whole family gets to cuddle for a bit before getting up! My partner and I also have a little bedtime tradition: we each press a finger to one of Ariel’s and say, “Goodnight, we love you!”

Marie-Soleil Pelletier, mother of Rosalie (aged 4 months) and Ariel (aged 2)

 “In the morning, to encourage Chloé to eat her breakfast and make her laugh, I make a smiley face out of fruit. Before I get her dressed for daycare, she cuddles up on my lap to watch a little TV. She’s still a bit sleepy and just happy to be with me. It’s our morning ritual!”

Frédéric Hamelin, father of Chloé (aged 2)

“Ophélie spends a lot of time in my arms, and I breastfeed her, just as I breastfed my boys. For me, nursing is a way to show affection. With Alek and Lukas, I do something special in the evening: they both get a little back massage to help them relax before bed.”

Nathalie Bergeron, mother of Ophélie (aged 5 months), Alek (aged 5), and Lukas (aged 7)

 “When I pick up my eldest from daycare, it’s often quite chaotic. But I always take a moment to stop, look her in the eye, and give her a big hug. It makes a world of difference! With my youngest, I express affection mainly through nursing. It’s so sweet when she falls asleep on my breast at night!”

Julie Racine, mother of Emma (aged 1) and Ellie (aged 2½)

“My way of showing my kids affection is spending time with them. I fixed up a small table just for my son’s train set. We play with it all the time, and it makes him so happy. With my daughter, I mostly do arts and crafts. And every night before bedtime, I tell my kids all the reasons why I love them.”

Isabelle Désormeaux, mother of Nicolas (aged 2) and Rose (aged 5)

 “My little guy hops into bed with me in the morning. It’s our special bonding time, and I give him a big hug and kisses. Then he launches into all the things he wants to tell me about. I’m not sure whether he’s describing his dreams, but I give him my full attention! His stories always involve trucks and cars. He also likes talking about his friends, his cousin, and his grandma.”

Annie Bélanger, mother of Émile (aged 2)

“I love playing with my son. In the evening, after bath time, we play-wrestle on the bed. Jayden loves when I flip him on his back or toss him into the pillows. Sometimes I roll him around on the bed or grab his feet and lift him upside down. That gets him giggling like crazy!”

Maxime Pearson, father of Jayden (aged 2½)

 “Every Saturday, I take my kids to a local gymnasium that organizes activities for children. I only ever see dads there! I started going when my daughters were 1 and 4. It really helped strengthen our bond. Now I bring Émilien as well. It’s all about having fun and enjoying spending time together. It’s a way for me to show my kids that I love them.”

Jean-Philippe Pleau, father of Émilien (aged 15 months), Arielle (aged 7), and Juliette (aged 9)
Showing your child affection gives them a sense of self-worth.

“I press my nose to my daughter Anna’s back and pretend to sniff her like a dog. It makes her laugh so hard, she can hardly breathe! I also have special moments with Jeanne, who’s 3½. When I have errands to do, I take her with me and we sing along to music in the car. She also sees me as “Mr. Fix It.” If one of her toys breaks or a drawing gets torn, I fix it while she’s asleep and make sure it’s someplace she’ll see it right away when she wakes up.”

Johann Mäder, father of Anna (aged 1) and Jeanne (aged 3½)

“I play with Mathis every night after dinner. Afterwards, I give him his bath, read him a book, and rock him in my arms before putting him to bed. On the weekend, I like to wear him in a baby carrier and go for walks. I love having him so close to me. The carrier also helps him relax and fall asleep.”

Francis Provencher, father of Mathis (aged 1)
Things to keep in mind
  • When you show your child affection, they feel loved and comforted.
  • Displays of affection promote your little one’s brain development and help them regulate their emotions.
  • Children who grow up in an affectionate environment find it easier to learn and get along with others.
Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, April 2017
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist, author, and training instructor
Updated: June 2023

 

Resources

Books for parents

  • Emery, J. L’attachement parent-enfant : de la théorie à la pratique, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2016, 495 pp.
  • Ferland, F. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien : de 0 à 6 ans, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2nd edition, 2018, 264 pp.
  • UNICEF. Le développement et l’apprentissage du jeune enfant, 2010.
  • Gueguen, C. Pour une enfance heureuse, Éditions Robert Laffont, 2014, 304 pp.
  • Brazelton, T. Berry. Points forts, tome 1, De la naissance à 3 ans, Le Livre de Poche, 1999, 607 pp.
  • Brazelton, T. Berry. Points forts, tome 2, De 3 à 6 ans, Le Livre de Poche, 2002, 552 pp.
  • Parent, N. Enfants stressés : tout ce qu’il faut savoir pour aider votre enfant à grandir sereinement, Éditions Michel Lafon, 2019, 240 pp.

Books for kids

  • Desbordes, A. Ce que papa m’a dit. Illustrated by Martin, P., Albin Michel Jeunesse, 2016, 40 pp.
  • McBratney, S. Guess How Much I Love You. Illustrated by Jeram, A., Scholastic, 1994, 36 pp.
  • Munsch, R. Love You Forever. Illustrated by McGraw, S., Firefly Books, 1986, 32 pp.
  • Demers, D. La plus belle histoire d’amour. Illustrated by Béha, P., Éditions Imagine, 2006, 32 pp.
  • McBratney, S. There, There. Illustrated by Bates, I., Templar Books, 2015, 32 pp.
  • Desbordes, A. Mon amour. Illustrated by Martin, P., Albin Michel Jeunesse, 2015, 48 pp.

 

Photos: Gettyimages/Fatcamera, Maxim Morin, and Nicolas St-Germain