Best medicine is huggable, say Israeli doctors

Please look after me: Researchers from Tel Aviv University discovered that something as simple and low-tech as a soft toy can significantly calm psychological distress in children.As any kid knows, even the scariest things become a little less scary when …

Please look after me: Researchers from Tel Aviv University discovered that something as simple and low-tech as a soft toy can significantly calm psychological distress in children.As any kid knows, even the scariest things become a little less scary when you have a friend by your side. Now a study by Tel Aviv University proves just that. Israeli researchers found that caring for a stuffed toy animal helps soothe psychological stress in young children exposed to traumatic or stressful life events.

In the study led by Dr. Avi Sadeh of TAU’s Pediatrics Department, 74 children (40 boys and 34 girls), with an average age of five years, were given a stuffed dog known as a ‘Huggy-Puppy’ – a floppy-eared, furry doll with droopy legs long enough to wrap the owner in a ‘hug.’

The children, all of whom were living with their families in shelter camps during 2006′s month-long conflict between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, were instructed to look after the puppy, who was ‘sad because he was far from home, didn’t have friends, and needed care from a buddy.’ Their parents were encouraged to remind them of this responsibility.

While most of the children had experienced severe stress reactions from their war-related experiences, say the scientists, there was a marked improvement following the low-tech intervention. Nearly 83 percent of the children had experienced one or more symptoms of severe stress including separation fears, agitation, nervousness, aggression, excessive crying or sleep disruptions prior to the study. Three weeks after receiving the puppy, the children with the strongest attachment to their toy had lower stress levels.

After two months 71% showed no such symptoms of severe war-related trauma, compared to a control group that did not receive the Huggy-Puppy, where only 39% were free of such behaviors.

Larger follow-up studies, involving nearly 300 children also suffering from the effects of the Second Lebanon War, confirmed the relationship between psychological attachment to a Huggy-Puppy and lowered stress levels, the scientists report in a recent issue of Pediatrics.

“Shifting attention from oneself to others can be very healthy for individuals under stressful times,” explained Dr. Sadeh in comments to Reuters Health,/I>.

The researchers note that the approach is an effective, simple technique which pediatricians and child care professionals could use as a ‘strategic intervention’ in other situations which expose children to trauma, such as war and mass terror attacks like September 11.

Dr. Sadeh has now launched a series of similar studies to test the efficacy of the huggy-puppy with children undergoing other stressful situations.

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