Call me Dr. Smooch. That’s because I’m a big believer in the time-honored tradition of kissing boo-boos.
I’ve seen my two toddlers involved in some disastrous falls and high-speed collisions. After the sobbing subsides, they’re usually content to walk away with a peck on the knee, head, or whatever bruised body part. If the accident is serious enough to draw blood, a Spider-Man bandage coupled with a sympathetic smooch usually does the trick.
I was curious why this technique works so well. I called the American Academy of Pediatrics. The spokeswoman referred me to Dr. Andrew Garner, a pediatrician with extensive training in brain development. He’s also the chairman of the AAP’s Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.
Dr. Garner pointed out four aspects of kissing a boo-boo that make the practice so effective.
1. DISTRACTION – One scientific explanation is a phenomenon called “lateral inhibition.” The gist is that if something hurts, engaging the sensory neurons near the trauma will inhibit or decrease the perception of pain.
“This is the same reason why kids with growing pains love to have their legs rubbed. Distraction can also occur via other processes in higher brain centers. For example, teething pain is likely to be worse at night because there are no engaging distractions. By paying attention to other things, mild pain is basically ignored,” Garner said.
2. LESS STRESS – Pain is worse when we are stressed. In addition to physical pain, kids can often be traumatized when they realize they were not safe or someone was unable to protect them.
Eliminating the emotional trauma with a simple hug or kiss decreases the psychological stress, thus decreasing the perception of pain, Garner said.
Interestingly, not all kids seek out emotional reassurance. A red flag for autism is when a child does not seek emotional support in times of need or pain, he added.
3. PLACEBO – The mere idea that the pain will go away (like it has every time post-peck) can decrease pain perception.
“The scientific basis for this is more complicated, but likely also involves inhibiting (or ‘gating’) the perception of pain at the spinal cord and higher centers in the brain,” Garner said.
4. CLOSURE – Sometimes, a child is simply unable to move on until they get a kiss from a loving adult.
While entirely understandable at some ages, this highlights the one downside to kissing a boo-boo. As children age, they need to become more independent and move away from requiring an adult to regulate their response to minor trauma. In the long run, parents are looking for children to develop the ability to “self-regulate” or soothe themselves.
“This is also known as resiliency. One way to begin developing resiliency is to not immediately run to the side of an older child, but to gently and calmly assure them that they are fine. They are very good at reading faces, though, so if you look alarmed they will be alarmed too,” Garner said.
If an older child insists on a kiss, perhaps have them kiss the boo-boo after you do. Over time, the older child will learn that they can do it themselves.
Armed with that knowledge, I’m opening my own medical practice. Dr. Smooch is now taking appointments. I accept most major insurance plans.
Image credit: albmulay
Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.