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Notre Dame research: Cuddling your kids may make them healthier adults

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A Notre Dame psychologist has found that when parents are affectionate, sensitive and playful toward their children, the kids grow up to be healthier and happier adults.

Her research will appear in a forthcoming article in the journal Applied Developmental Science.

"I was the youngest of 10," says Jennifer Lafever who admits growing up, she never lacked love and attention.

"All my siblings were affectionate with me. They would carry me around. I remember sitting on laps, watching TV and reading books," says Lafever.

Lafever says she never lacked playmates either.

"We lived on a farm so there was not a lot of children around, so my siblings were my playmates. But on a farm we had all kinds of great spaces to play outside so we did a lot of make believe play when we were little," says Lafever.

Now, new research shows those childhood experiences may have helped make Lafever the successful and well adjusted adult she is today.

Notre Dame professor of psychology Darcia Narvaez and two colleagues surveyed more than 600 adults. They asked about their childhood experiences. Darvaez was interested in things like how much affectionate touch did the adult receive as a child, how much free play, and what was family togetherness was like. What she found was, the adults who had positive childhood experiences evolved into adults with less anxiety and better mental health.

"These things independently, but also added up together, predicted the adults' mental health, so they were less depressed, less anxious, and their social capacities -- they were more able to take other people's perspective. They were better at getting along with others and being open-hearted," says Narvaez.

So, what does this mean for today's parents?

Narvaez says parents should hold, touch and rock their babies and children and be responsive to their needs.

"What parents do in those early months and years are really affecting the way the brain is going to grow the rest of their lives," explains Narvaez, "so lots of holding, touching and rocking. that is what babies expect. They grow better that way. And keep them calm, because all sorts of systems are establishing the way they are going to work. If you let them cry a lot, those systems are going to be easily triggered into stress. We can see that in adult hood -- that people that are not cared for well, tend to be more stress reactive and they have a hard time self calming."

Narvaez say free play inside and outside is important. It is also important that children have a positive, warm environment inside the home.

"That they feel like they belong -- they are part of the family unit or the neighborhood community and part of that is to have a lot of activities that you do together," says Narvaez, who recommends going to the park or playing a game rather than spending time on a smartphone or in front of a TV.

And for those parents that need a break, Narvaez says a community of caregivers is important. That means grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends should play an active role.

"We need to, as a community support families so they can give children what they need," says Narvaez, "we really didn't evolve to parent alone. Our history is to have a community of caregivers to help -- the village, so that when mom or dad needs a break, there is someone there who is ready to step in."

The research also showed that when children weren't given things like affection, free play and a warm home environment, they turned into adults with decreased social and moral capacities.

Narvaez says humans, have evolved to need these important things from birth. Which is why, she recommends parents follow their instincts.

"Sometimes, we have parents that say, you are going to spoil the baby if you pick them up when they are feeling distressed. No, you can't spoil a baby. You are actually ruining the baby if you don't pick them up. You are ruining their development," says Narvaez.

"Part of it is following your instincts because we as parents want to hold our children. We want to keep that child close," she says, "follow that instinct. We want to keep the child quiet and happy because the cry is so distressing. It is on purpose, so you don't let it happen. So follow the instinct to hold, play, interact, that is what you want to do."

Lafever is now a mother of two growing boys. She hopes to pass along the same positive childhood experiences she had to her 12-year-old and 9-year-old so they can become healthy adults.

"I think so far, things are working out," says Lafever, "they are good at making friends. high quality friend relationships. they do really well in school."

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"I would love to be able to claim they are so wonderful because of how I parented," says Lafever, "but I think part of it is they are just good kids."

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