We all know that snuggling is good for the soul, but did you know that this type of closeness between parent and child has actually been shown to improve a child's overall long-term health and wellbeing?
According to Dr. Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, childhood physical and emotional support all contribute to something called the evolved developmental niche, and includes key elements such as responsiveness to a baby's needs, constant physical presence, extensive breastfeeding and playful interactions with caregivers and friends.
"Humans evolved with a nest of care for their young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the child. It was shaped over 30 million years ago and modified through human evolution," said Narvaez of this niche.
A few years ago, Narvaez and her colleagues penned an article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science that explained how childhood experiences that match with evolved needs lead to better outcomes in adulthood. To get their results, the team asked a select group of adults targeted questions such as how much did they receive physical affection as children, were they allowed to play freely outside and inside, did they often do things together as a family and whether or not they felt supported.
Their research indicated that those adults who received more physical and emotional support as children reported lower incidences of depression and anxiety, and showed more compassion towards others. Those who received less had poorer mental health, were distressed in social situations and were less able to understand another's point of view.
"Our research shows that when we don't provide children with what they evolved to need, they turn into adults with decreased social and moral capacities," Narvaez said. She added that when children experience a "toxic" childhood, they become stress reactive, which makes it harder to be compassionate.
According to Narvaez, children in the United States currently lag behind children in other developed nations when it comes to the evolved developmental niche and the support required for them to develop into healthy adults. She believes this is because "we have forgotten that we are social mammals with specific evolved needs from birth." Narvaez is an expert when it comes to moral cognition, moral development and the needs of children and has written a book called "Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom," which won the 2015 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association.