With this tender moment still inside me as I sat down to write this week’s blog, I couldn’t help but think back to this same time last year when I was writing my book and I was pregnant with baby Isaac. On the morning I began my research on the link between human connection and health, I found myself weeping in front of my computer screen. I had just watched a news story called “Shame of a Nation,” which was originally broadcast in 1990 by the US ABC program 20/20, and revealed a modern-day tragedy.
It was the story of how the former communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu thought that the best way to boost his country’s industrial output was to increase the population. His policies banning abortion and contraception resulted in 170,000 children being neglected in 700 understaffed institutions. The images were beyond heartbreaking. Babies were tied to steel cribs, rhythmically rocking or banging their heads against walls, lying in their own excrement, and supervised by staff with little time to hold or comfort them. They were not only starved of proper nourishment, they were also starved of love.
The real-life ramifications of this unintended social experiment are only now becoming apparent. Reports that the children had stunted growth and a range of mental and emotional problems were corroborated when a 2015 paper concluded that their brains had not developed normally. As a mother of a three-year-old, with another on the way, my grief for the children of Ceaușescu’s rule was palpable. Their story hit me like a ton of bricks.
As I wrote about in my blog post The Proven Healing Power of Touch, we now know that interpersonal touch, especially the cuddling we receive as infants, is fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. But it’s not just young children who benefit from connectedness. A major review that analysed 148 studies with more than 308,000 participants found that people with strong social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of surviving disease compared to those with weaker relationships. The editorial accompanying the study declared that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death is comparable with the influence of well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and exceeded the influence of other major risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
Of course, it’s too simplistic to say that all we need for a long, happy, healthy life is good relationships. Sleep, exercise, good food, good medicine, less stress… all these things are important, but so often we overlook the power of our precious, rare moments of connection with others.
As the mother of two young children, I regularly catch myself wishing time away, working towards the next milestone, and dreaming of the day when my kids are more independent. But when I think of the whole generation of Romanian orphans who grew up without love, I am reminded that each and every moment of connection with them is a gift.
I still can’t find an English word to adequately encapsulate my moment with baby Isaac this morning. Instead, I think this Welsh word might work – “Cwtch” (pronounced kutch) is private safe place in a room or in two peoples hearts. It means snuggling and cuddling and loving and protecting and safeguarding and claiming, all rolled into one.