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Whenever my son gets a minor injury (scraped knee, stubbed toe, bumped head, etc.), the fastest way to get him to stop crying is to kiss wherever he got hurt.

It almost always immediately stops the crying, and when asked "does that feel better?", he'll almost always say "yes".

Why does this work? I'm interested in answers that address both the child's perspective (i.e. if a child asks why kisses from mommy and daddy make small hurts feel better, how do you answer?), and the psychological perspective as to why this approach is so effective.

Are there any down-sides to kissing injuries to make them feel better (aside from the pitfall I ran into where my son fell on his butt, then pointed to it and demanded that I kiss it, that is)?

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    FWIW, in several European countries that I know of we gently blow on the sore spot rather than kiss it. I think it's just a practical and pragmatic thing; the soothing effect is the same but it avoids direct contact -- and even relative "strangers" would be okay with doing that. I'm training my son to learn that it works even when he does it himself. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 28 '13 at 6:44
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    On your downside (hurt butt/feet/etc)- we've handled that by kissing our hands, then "blowing" the kiss onto that area. (Edit - I see that's already covered in the answers below :)) – Krease Mar 5 '13 at 5:48
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    Yeah, my toddler once hurt her buttock and, well, expected me to soothe the pain as usual... I would've, except that I couldn't stop laughing at her sticking out her bottom towards me and pointing her finger at it. – Dariusz Jun 1 '15 at 11:21
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The major reason is because you say they do. Our brains are powerful and the placebo effect is real. Some doctors are even prescribing placebos, telling the patients "a number of studies have shown that this pill will help you" (which is true.) If a parent says something will work, it will work.

When my daughter was a preschooler her body reacted a lot to things others don't notice. One bug bite would swell her hand so she could barely use it. She was allergic to Solarcaine. I would tell her "tell your hand to stop swelling now" and she, not knowing that was a ridiculous request, would comply - and the swelling would go down. To this day "a warm cloth" and "a cold cloth" (a regular facecloth with water from the appropriate tap, squeezed out so it doesn't drip) are remedies my young adults will turn to when needed. These things help them to feel better, partly because their whole lives they were told that they would. (And partly because they genuinely do help for some maladies eg a fever is improved by a cold cloth and a bump is soothed by a warm one.)

On top of that, even adults who no longer believe in the power of a kiss from a parent do feel happier when someone acknowledges their pain, the more specifically the better, and expresses a wish for that pain to be lessened. It's true of emotional pain and it's true of physical pain too.

BTW, if you don't want to kiss the exact injury site (butts don't scare me, but maybe a scrape is oozing and gross, or a bump is very sore) you can blow it a kiss, or kiss your child's hand to let them deliver the kiss themselves. These also work as long as you are confident that they will.

  • Yeah, I wound up kissing his butt, but we've used the "blow a kiss" method as well :) – user420 Feb 27 '13 at 16:19
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    This works in the opposite direction too: You can tell them that they aren't hurt at all, and they can believe you. Most times, they're looking for you to tell them whether it hurts or not. – rlb.usa Feb 28 '13 at 21:57
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    @rlb.usa oh yes, I remember that pause right after a toddler sits down hard where they're looking at you to see if this is a big deal or not. If someone panics and runs to save them, they scream, and if not, not. – Chrys Feb 28 '13 at 22:21
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    "You can tell them that they aren't hurt at all" I'd be careful with this one, if they are genuinely hurt this directly contradicts what they are feeling, and they can learn to distrust you, if it's over used. We always ask "What Happened?" even if the only answer is "Toe! Bump toe!" it allows the child to put a narrative around the pain, which makes it less scary, and allows the kiss-it-better placebo to work better (we find). – Binary Worrier Mar 6 '13 at 7:54
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    There's been some interesting research over the last several years on neurological (brain) and endocrinological (hormones) responses to touch, especially touch from a loved one (the NYT article summarizes one famous study). In addition to the power of placebos and the importance of feeling acknowledged, there are real physiological responses to a kiss from someone you love. – Rose Hartman Apr 8 '17 at 6:42
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Apart from the psychological benefits that Chrys mentions (and I believe they are the most powerful part), it does actually reduce the pain response, because you're sending a competing signal (touch) to the same brain area which is processing pain. Rubbing the area helps too, also in adults (there was some research about this, I vaguely remember).

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    rubbing also increases blood flow which can "rinse away" the chemicals that mediate pain signals. Ditto for "walk it off" at least for mild bumps – Chrys Feb 28 '13 at 21:50
  • The idea that touch and pain signals compete in the brain doesn't hold water. If you have evidence please cite it. If you don't, please don't present your answer as though it's based on research. – Rose Hartman Apr 8 '17 at 6:34
  • @RoseHartman You're right, I don't have a citation, it's just an educated guess (I'm a sensory neuroscientist). The guess is based on the fact that (a) an increase in all types of sensation can lead to pain (hence, nocioception is inherently linked to sensation), (b) there are areas dedicated to both touch and pain, like area S2, and (c) divisive normalization, a process that leads to neural suppression in sensation when the functionally specific area is common for both/all stimuli, is well established in multisensory integration. (see e.g. doi:10.1038/nn.2815). – Ana Apr 8 '17 at 22:50
  • rubbing could do this, I'm not sure kissing could. It seems like the kiss is too fleeting and light to provide sufficient stimulus to do much to override the pain stimulus – dsollen Apr 13 '17 at 21:40
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In addition to the answers given above, bear in mind that one of the reasons they are crying in the first place is because they want attention. When you give them the kiss they are receiving the attention they are seeking, so stop crying.

You can see evidence of this by watching kids playing in playgrounds. Often a child who has bumped themselves will check to see if a parent is watching. If the parent saw them, they will start crying to get the attention they want. If no parent is watching they may well just get up and carry on playing.

Obviously, if a child has had a major knock, as opposed to a small bump, then they will cry regardless, but it is quite funny to see a child with a small knock opt for a cry having misjudged the attention level of their parents. They can become quite indignant!

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Kissing increases oxytocin which decreases stress and increases natural painkillers (opiates)

http://io9.com/5925206/10-reasons-why-oxytocin-is-the-most-amazing-molecule-in-the-world

  • yes, but this is just explaining what happens in the brain when pain is lowered. Every action we take or thought or emotion we have can be explained by describing the nerochemicals released within the brain, that's how the brain makes us think and feel what it does. It doesn't really describe the psychology behind why the brain is doing it though. It's like someone asking why there is a light in the refrigerator when you open the door and answering "because the open door closes a circuit causing electricity to reach the lightbulb". that's how the light turns on, but not why a light exist – dsollen Apr 13 '17 at 21:44
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I always ask my toddler to kiss my owies. We make a big deal out of it. (Of course I kiss hers too). I actually think it diminishes my pain. I have started to think that I look for that acknowledgement that I was hurt, and it feels good to have another person concerned about my pain. But I bet there is some energy to it. We are all connected at a deeper level, and of course I have a strong connection to my child. So I think sharing that love energy actually does do something positive in your body.

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