Science has already proven just how important touch is to a baby's development. But did you know that studies show that it can even impact their DNA.?
Touch is essential for human beings of all ages. Science has demonstrated the physical and emotional benefits of contact from another person. For example, studies have shown that people with a wide range of illnesses benefit from massage. Stressed-out workers have shown a reduction in blood pressure and anxiety after a chair massage. Even momentary touches, such as a high five or a pat on the back, can enhance positive emotions and performance.
Perhaps the ones who benefit from physical contact the most are infants. Developmental delays have been illustrated in babies who have experienced a lack of regular sensory stimulation, such as those infants in an orphanage or premature neonates. A new study shows the amount a human is touched as an infant can have long-lasting effects at a molecular level, all the way down to the DNA.
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Researchers from the University of British Columbia and BC Children's Hospital Research Institute asked the parents of 94 children to keep a journal of their infants' behavior at five weeks of age, including moments of fussing, eating, sleeping and crying. According to a press release, parents were also asked to record their responses to their newborns, including the duration of physical contact and caregiving that followed their babies' behaviors.
When the children reached approximately 4-and-a-half years of age, DNA samples were taken by swabs from the inside of their cheeks. The samples were then analyzed for differences in DNA, based on how often the infants were touched.
Using a scientific process called DNA methylation, the researchers were able to see significant differences between high-contact and low-contact children at five specific DNA sites. According to the press release, one of the sites plays a role in immunity, and another plays a role in metabolism.
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The children who experienced less physical contact had cells that were less developed than they should have been for a child of that age. Prior research has shown that differences in biological age and epigenetic age can lead to health problems. This study was the first of its kind on human beings.
"We plan to follow up on whether the 'biological immaturity' we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development," said lead author Sarah Moore. "If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants."
Most moms, however, are not surprised by the findings of this study. It has been noted since the dawn of time that babies need physical touch and affection. Modern Western society has made it a point to spend less time touching our own babies for fear of "spoiling" them or not allowing them to grow and learn independently. However, other longitudinal studies refute that fact. An article published by the London Journal of Primary Care states that, "The most important stage for brain development is the beginning of life, starting in the womb and then the first year of life…The experiences a baby has with her caregivers are crucial to this early wiring and pruning and enable millions and millions of new connections in the brain to be made. Repeated interactions and communication lead to pathways being laid down that help memories and relationships form and learning and logic to develop.This means a human baby's brain is both complicated and vulnerable."
In fact, in a book called, "Wounds That Time Won't Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse," Dr. Tiecher states that children who suffered neglect (an extreme form of insecure attachment) in their early years were found to have:
- Reduced growth in the left hemisphere which may lead to associated increased depression risk for depression
- Increased sensitivity in the limbic system which can lead to anxiety disorders
- Reduced growth in the hippocampus that could contribute to learning and memory impairment
So how can we ensure that we are providing our children with enough affection?
There are several ways you can give your baby affection over the first few years of their life. Affection does not always have to mean cuddling- affection can be shown through other methods as well. Of course, giving affection and appropriate love to your child will change as they grow, but for infancy into early toddlerhood you can:
- Breastfeed (especially longer than the recommended six months by the American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Read stories together
- Play with your baby- whether that means laying on the floor with them as they bat at toys or doing more active play as they grow older, playing with your child is a great way to show love and affection
- Baby massage after bath
- Offer gentle parenting techniques when disciplining such as:
- Understanding and compassion
- Giving affection when they are feeling angry or hurt versus making them spend time alone
- No yelling
- Eat meals together