Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Cuddling children - not allowed again????

We all need hugging and cuddling no matter what age we are. We also need the touch of a smile, verbal affection and eye contact too and we need key relationships with people we can trust.

Affective interaction is necessary for the healthy, cognitive, social and emotional development of every human being.

This is as necessary as food.

There is so much research that exists on this subject, Harlow’s famous experiments with monkey’s in the 1960’s showed the need for comfort and warmth and many studies with infants in orphanages and in hospitals showed conclusive results that if babies do not have contact with a significant other and are not touched they fail to thrive.

Infants deprived of skin contact lose weight, become ill and even die.

Premature babies receiving “touch therapy" gained weight faster, cried less and show more signs of a relaxed pulse respiration rate and muscle tension and I'm sure that there must be research with the elderly too, but I haven’t explored this.

It seems that this natural warm physical response to another human being causes a biochemical release of the hormone, oxytocin and when this hormone enters the bloodstream we feel good: it lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improves mood, increases tolerance for pain and maybe even helping the body to heal more quickly.

Cuddling/hugging is so very good for us it lowers stress

Touch is also the way that many of our memories are stored which means that our early memories are anchored deeply into the physiology of the bodies neurology (touch permeates through the dermis (skin) and activates tiny receptors which are distributed throughout the entire body). These early memories, including the way that we were touched create a pattern, a template from which subsequent relationships are formed, consequently, it is crucial to recognise the importance of the essential value of reassuring and caring touch, hugging, cuddling and expressions of affection…relationships and attachment.

This is what Leboyer 1975;Wilson 1982 said:

"It is through the skin, through touch, that the newborn first learns about its world and draws conclusions about whether it is a safe place or a hostile one"

When we feel contained in the arms of another we learn to trust. When we feel safe and securely attached, we develop the confidence to explore our surroundings independently, with a sense of adventure and self assuredness, knowing that we can return to that place of safety when we need it.

It gives us a sense of safety and security and supports the development of trust

This is what I understand about the importance of cuddling (and its connections with attachment and developing a healthy sense of mental and emotional wellbeing) so when I read a title like “cuddling children – not allowed again, which was posted on a linked-in group recently, it calls me to engage, share and respond to this very important topic and my desire is now to share what was discussed with all of you too.

Janet Uwins - Independent Early Years Consultant and Tutor, Chelmsford, UK initiated this discussion when she posted this:

“I have been teaching a regular class of pre-school practitioners today who are nearing the end of their L3 Diploma. In classroom debate, one of my students raised the subject of cuddling children, a subject that was quite controversial a few years ago. It seems to have reared its ugly head once again, this fine line between acceptable and not acceptable practice with young children, and once again I am hearing messages that settings are asking staff not to touch the children in order to protect themselves against safeguarding accusations.

Have I missed something here?

I was under the impression we had moved on from blanket policies of this nature and were putting the needs of the child first. Surely the concept behind our Key Person approach and acknowledgement of attachment theory and the emotional well-being of the child is fundamental. I would like to hear from any of you (practitioners in particular) who can offer me any enlightenment as to this supposed U-turn.”

When Janet says it has reared its “ugly head” I agree with her “the ugliness” is that child abuse exists, children could be harmed or a member of staff falsely accused of abuse and the level of fear paired with a need for safety sometimes results in staff in nurseries, teachers in schools, social workers and many others who work with children, being confused and cautious about cuddling and showing their care and affection freely…

There were many responses illustrating this concern on-line, including one contributor saying that she had worked in one placement where minimum contact was suggested (in the 12 to 18 month room) and that blanket policies about this seem to be apparent in larger chains.

Here are a few other responses for you to read:

Elaine Hook, Manager Sole Charge at Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries, Hemel Hempstead said:

“We cuddle children openly in a room with other members of staff keeping our hand visible and usually rely on the child's lead. Of course for emotional, attachment and attunement reasons practitioners have to cuddle babies and small children but always under the organisation policies and procedures and with someone else in the room. We never do anything alone or behind closed doors especially with older children. We also ensure that we write an incident procedure form over absolutely anything and have it witnessed by a staff member and signed off by the deputy or manager and then ask the parents to sign the form and also give them a copy. It is more detrimental to the development and well being of a small child (as we all know) to not cuddle or comfort a child than it to comfort. I believe all practitioners especially managers/owners should be confident (and know their own policies well) to challenge ideas like these in the best interest of the child and their learning and development. We all want children to grow up as social well adjusted individuals and as well all know if children are not stroked, cuddled or love that can cause a wide range of trauma for later in life”.

Kathy Brodie who provides tailored training and support for early years nurseries and professionals, Stockport, UK made reference to the independent report on the Early Years Foundation Stage – Dame Tickell

4.5……….I recommend that the safeguarding and welfare requirements are made more explicit about warning signs in the behaviour of adults working in a setting. I also recommend that the EYFS sets out clearly the high level content of the child protection training that lead safeguarding practitioners are required to attend. This should align with the Working together to safeguard children guidance, and include content on safeguarding within early years settings.

4.6 That said, I recognise that this must be balanced against the need to ensure that those working in settings do not become afraid to interact confidently with the children in their care. It is only right, for example, that young children should be hugged and comforted when this is needed – indeed withholding this type of comfort could be damaging to a child. This is why this type of training and knowledge is essential to help practitioners understand what is, and is not, appropriate

Catherine, Proprietor and Centre Manager at Springlands Training and Assessment Centre, Principal and Proprietor at SPRINGLANDS (early years, childcare),Principal and Owner at St Mary's Kindergarten and The Cherries Nursery:

“Why do we put children in the position where they have to ASK for comfort (i.e. take the child's lead as they become upset/ask) surely, as sensitive adults who understand children we should anticipate when a child may become frightened or upset and step in with a 'hands on' approach (as appropriate) before they get upset?

I believe, the more 'TLC' they receive the more secure and capable of handling traumatic situations and healthily.

How many fewer than fives currently are anticipated to have mental health problems when they are adults? There is a statistic!

I would expect key-people to know their key children very well - otherwise where's the relationship?

What's the point?     Emotional security is more important than anything else?

In my opinion, the best practitioners will 'naturally' respond and personally I think they should remember, as adults we are unlikely to have any REAL memories of our lives before six (maybe just those told to us) - I am sure you will agree what we do remember of our childhoods has influenced us somehow in adulthood - but as we remember consciously we can rationalise it and maybe repair the hurt. I worry about what is not remembered and this is why 'early years' is such a huge responsibility!

I personally think no cuddling is neglect - that maybe is my subconscious influencing that judgment, particularly when I look at my first school photo!

The nursery systems, environment, staffing ratio's, policies together with the professionalism and trust of individuals within teams should be in place to support individual staff in giving to children; to meet all their needs - this obviously requires 'constant review' and 'risk assessment' to possible accusations/worries/claims.

This is such an important discussion. I enjoyed it and at the same time I feel a real sadness too…This is an area, close to my heart, one that I address with in my work around human connection and relationships and interactions …

So I say lets talk about love and affection in our trainings with those working with our children, in their homes, in nurseries and in schools and lets invite discussions and the opportunity for people to share their beliefs and attitudes and to explore their fears and concerns in this area.

We all need hugging and cuddling no matter what age we are

Are you willing to share your thoughts on this one?


  1. Tracy, thankyou so much for this post. I worked as a foster carer for three years and fostered sometimes very traumatised children who ranged in age but almost always had significant attachment difficulties. I was told by the agency i worked for 'not' to hug the children for fear of false allegations and then in another breath, expected to help the children to develop emotionally. Impossible in my view without touch. Words and policies seem to be exchanged for common sense and trust. Whilst i stand by safeguarding, i question the harm being done to children by denying an essential need to be met by trained, therapeutic and qualified professionals. Hence, I am no longer a foster carer. The question i would ask is this, we are instructed as professionsls to enable children opportunity to lead normal lives, well everyone needs a hug dont we?

  2. Yes, absolutely, thanks for sharing your experience

  3. I am in business to ensure young children get the best experience possible before starting school. ALL ROUND DEVELOPMENT is important; emotional security and social ability are the most important parts to get right. In my nurseries children are happy and industrious; they determine their own progress (with 'on-hand assistance!) because they are confident in being inquisitive and assertive.

    Our children wouldn't settle quickly and gain so much from their early years experience without 'being fed emotionally' - cuddling being fundamental.

    I would close my nurseries if I had to deprive a child of what they need to flourish.

    I believe we should give children what they need rather than to remove any element from the equation!

    Catherine House - Springlands Nursery, Springlands Baby Chalet, The Cherries Nursery, St Mary's KIndergarten, Springlands Training & Assessment Centre - Colchester, Essex

  4. Corinne Taylor26 May 2011 at 18:56

    I am a former student of Janet Uwins, who prompted this debate. We had this debate in our DPP class and I totally agree with the previous comments. Children thrive when they are emotionally cared for. At my setting, we go with the children's lead...if they are sad, I ask if they would like a hug, or simply hold my arms open wide. If they want a hug, they will respond. Barely a day goes by without children wanting a hug, and after a discussion about my youngest daughter about this, her opinion is that she always feels better after a hug. Surely the EYFS is about nurturing children and putting their needs first. How could I say no to a child who is crying and just needs a cuddle?

  5. It's all about meeting needs which is particularly important for children so that when we are adults our needs are not so excessive and we are not judging ourself or being judged by others as needy.

  6. I agree, children thrive and feel secure and confident when they are hugged/loved and their needs are met...This leads to emotional stability and a sense of wellbeing in adulthood....

  7. It is a well known fact that everyone feels better, safe and secure having contact with another, that's what solid relationships are built on. It is also well known that babies and young children, in order to thrive, need human contact - touch, stroking, massage, rocking, eye contact, sound (verbal and environmental) as well as safe secure loving environments; all this makes for balanced environments. Without these basic needs babies and children are known to have suffered social & emotional difficulties later in life and some have even been known to have passed away. Human contact helps us to grow and develop into socially and emotionally balanced individuals; as adults we know how much better we feel, on a bad day, if someone we love and trust gives us a hug, a pat on the back or a squeeze of support and reassurance to help us through the bad times. Nevertheless, in all of this, strict safeguarding policies and procedures must be followed and adhered to, and common sense MUST prevail. All staff and professionals working with children must always keep themselves, their staff and the organisation as a whole safe and must have excellent incident, reporting and whistleblowing policies in place together with mobile phone and social networking policies that managers/deputies and all senior staff understand and are not afraid to implement and discuss at a professional level. Staff training in these areas is imperative with all levels of staff on a regular basis in order for us all to do the best for the children in our care BUT at the same time safeguarding all concerned.

    Elaine Hook, Sole Charge Nursery Manager, Education Consultant, Gifted and Talented Expert and Author

  8. Good to see Corinne making a comment! I would like to add the following comments from Jools Page (2011) who uses the term 'professional love':
    '...few professionals discuss the idea of loving children who are unrelated to them and if they do they are cautious and perhaps even fearful of what Heather Piper describes as the 'moral panic' around the protection of children. So, in the context of paid childcare, I suggest we might begin to think about this as 'professional love'.

    Julia Manning-Morton and Maggie Thorp(2003) write about 'emotional holding' and state: 'In early years settings, even babies and toddlers who have been attending the group for some time have periods of being unsettled. They can cling, needing a lot of holding when they are tired, unwell or upset by events in their lives and their health can fluctuate rapidly, causing changes in their mood and sense of well-being. Their ability to play is greatly diminished when in these states.'

    This is not rocket science and surely is a natural response by any carer to nurture and emotionally nourish through close physical contact with a familiar and trusted adult.


  9. Thanks Elaine for highlighting so clearly, the importance around loving relating and safeguarding and protection and what is required in a setting. This is really useful advice for practitioners and thanks so much Janet for the quotes that you include. These do provide us with some of the picture around practitioner’s fears and confusion.

    I feel encouraged when I read Jools, Julia Manning-Morton and Maggie Thorpe addressing this issue and proposing ways of how we might view “love and care” for those that we are not related to. However, when I read terms like “professional love” and “emotional holding” (realise that I am reading these quotes out of context and there maybe much more from them on this subject), my sense is that there is still so much more to discuss on this topic….I am grateful to you Janet for these postings and am really enjoying facilitating this discussion…..

    What about terms like “open hearted love” and “compassionate connection” in these contexts and the Ancient Greeks offer of four distinct words for love: agape, eros, philia and storge.

    It might be interesting to ask students to reflect on all of these terms and discuss them not only in relation to their work with children, but with each other and with parents too.

    Mother Theresa says: “We have been created to love and be loved”

    I wonder what terms for love she would have used in her work…

    I just re-read The Power of a Smile page 41 Why Love Matters – how affection shapes a baby’s brain by Sue Gerhardt…it seems

    A feeling of doting brings a smile to life and literally helps the social brain to grow…...

    “When the baby looks at his mother (or father), he reads her dilated pupils as information that her sympathetic nervous system is aroused and she is expressing pleasurable arousal. In response, his own nervous system becomes pleasurably aroused and his heart rate goes up. These processes trigger off a biochemical response. First, a pleasurable neuropeptide called beta-endorphin is released into the circulation and specifically into the orbitofrontal region of the brain. “Endogenous” or home-made opioids like beta endorphin are known to help neurons grow, by regulating glucose and insulin (Schore 1994). As a natural opioids, they also make you feel good. At the same time, another neurotransmitter called dophamine is released from the brainstem and again makes its way to the prefrontal cortex. This too enhances the uptake of glucose there, helping new tissue to grow in the prefrontal brain. Dophamine probably also feels good, in so far as it produces an energising and stimulating effect; it is involved in the anticipation of reward. So by this technical and circuitous route, we discover that family doting loos are triggering off pleasurable bio chemicals that actually help the social brain to grow (Schore 1994)”

    What does this mean for love...and for practitioners, who spend hours and hours each day with young children?

  10. I have worked in pre-school settings for over 10 years and I feel it is imperative that children, especially under fives receive the security that physical contact gives to them. At this age, they as yet haven't acquired the subtlety of social language needed to ask for what they need in terms of contact and in my experience if nursery staff are too aloof and physically distant from the children there then the children seem insecure. Let us remember they are used to a hand on the back, to be picked up by a parent for a reassuring cuddle or many other close connections at home and if this isn't available in the nursery environment the child is confused and will be unsure of the care given.

    This need is even more in evidence with special needs children with oral language difficulty - gesture, touch and physical closeness (such as a child sitting on someone's lap or leaning on them) can be the only way the child can feel loved and cared for whilst at a nursery setting. In this time when everyone's focus is on not being open to accusations perhaps we should all remember that the child's well-being comes first and a secure, loving foundation stage experience has been shown to last a life time! So let's put the child back in the centre of what is right, pull together as a body of Early Years workers and stand up for what is in the child's best interest.

    Julia Brightwell,
    Montessori Early Years Practitioner
    BA Hons in Psychology

  11. This is such a fascinating conversation as work with adults though Biodanza and you can tell very quickly who didn't experience intimacy or loving touch as a child. For some eye contact for more than a second is impossbible, for others simply holding hands in a circle is a major challenge. And this is the result of upbringing before this generation's rules on contact with children at school.
    I cant imagine how this generation is going to a few years down the line. I went to a lecture recently on empathy, by simon Baron-Cohen. According to his research, if those parts of the brain that relate to affection are shut down, people relate to others as objects, so acts of violence can occur without the perpetrator feeling any remorse or guilt.

    It seems that an afffective group environment can help stimulate those areas of the brain agian, in adults. Thank goodness for Biodanza!
    As you know Tracy,one weekend of the teacher training syllabus is devoted to Contact and Caress, to help us choose the right movements, dances and music to get the oxytocin flowing again, the juice of life. If anyone reading this wants to know more about Biodanza, Tracy can tell you or you can visit the website

    Gita Sootarsing CMCIPD
    International Biodanza Facilitor
    07889 531667

  12. Yes Gita, Biodanza is an extremely effective personal development system that supports particiants through an ease in movement, vitality for life and open hearted connection ...working with personal boundaries and freedom..rhythm and melody...I just returned from an NVC family camp in Wales and led some wonderful sessions for parents and children together..

  13. Interesting this topic is also featured in Exchange Every Day this week see Affection Audit.

  14. What a critical conversation -- with such detailed research included. Tracy thank you for the initial post & to all who have added to the discourse.

    I am an "Arts Enrichment Specialist" who visits centers for children from the wee-tinies, through the mature elementary age. I always refer to having heard Dr. Pam Schiller entone in her keynote address, "Trust is job one" repeatedly.

    Simple, yet all encompassing.

    Thank you for the invitation to become familiar with your work, Tracy.

  15. Tracy and colleagues

    Thanks for this really encouraging conversation. I'm an early years educational psychologist and for years ran a course for our local authority's early years training programme called Understanding and Managaing Behaviour in pre-school settings. In talking about meeting the needs of children many of the staff said "We've been told we can't pick up the children or cuddle them". It prompted us to have a conversation with the staff and reassure them that their instincts as humans and caregivers were right- they absolutely should do when the child needs it and to not to do was to deprive the child of a basic human need. From then on we always asked staff what their guidelines were and invited them to ask any of their line managers or advisers to contact us if they would like more discussion. These days I've left the LA and am working as a freelance Video Interaction Guidance trainer and supervisor - which is all about promoting emotional wellbeing so lots of positve connections, including showing parents video clips the impact of loving contact on their infant's/child's well being . For anyone interested in learning more about VIG we now have a website

    Thanks for prompting this debate Tracy! Jenny Cross