Cuddling Babies Changes Their Genetics For Years, Study Finds

Cuddling Babies Changes Their Genetics For Years, Study Finds

Holding babies is obviously the best thing for them, right?

It probably seems obvious to you. Just hold your baby as much as you can.

And then, sometimes you hear, ‘Don’t hold her too much! You’ll spoil her’.

If you’re around newborn babies, the desire to cuddle them is strong. It just feels right.

But sometimes our modern western culture tells us we can harm our babies, make them too dependent, or ‘spoil’ them with too much affection.

Well, science says the exact opposite.

A new study has found babies who are cuddled experience genetic changes that might affect them for years to come.

Babies Who Get More Cuddles Experience Genetic Changes

Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada worked with 94 babies, beginning when they were around 5 weeks of age.

Parents logged information about their babies – how often they cuddled them, their sleeping habits, etc. Then, four and a half years later, researchers did follow up, and swabbed the children to evaluate their DNA.

They found the babies who had less physical contact and experienced more distress at a young age showed changes in the molecular processes that affect gene expression.

Although researchers aren’t yet able to explain why or how touch influences the epigenome – the biochemical changes that influence gene expression in the body – the information will help scientists learn more.

Which Genes And Body Systems Are Affected By Early Touch?

The researchers found ‘high-contact’ and ‘low contact’ caused methylation differences at five specific DNA sites.

Two of these sites were within genes: one was related to the metabolic system, and the other was related to the immune system.

Why are methylation differences important? Well, DNA methylation can be a marker for normal biological development and the processes that go along with it.

This research, as well as many other studies, shows environment and external factors can influence how our genes are expressed.

The researchers readily admit they aren’t sure what impact these changes can have in the long term. But results show touch can have a powerful effect on our bodies, especially during the critical developmental years.

In fact, in the group with less contact and more distress, researchers also found differences in DNA methylation as a marker for biological age.

A discrepancy between chronological age and biological age is linked to several health problems.

Michael Kobe, a member of the research team, said, “In children, we think slower epigenetic ageing could reflect less favourable developmental progress”.

Is Physical Contact Really Important For Infants?

If we look at the whole of human history, infants spending time in cribs, car seats, swings, bouncers, and strollers is a relatively new concept.

When we also consider current practices in other cultures around the world, we realise baby gear isn’t the human norm.

Certainly, there is a place for baby gear – for example a safety seat in a vehicle. But baby gear popularity has been a concern for developmental specialists for decades.

Along with the growing popularity of baby gear, just a few generations ago, western parents were encouraged to limit their affection towards their children.

A leading parenting expert in the 1920s, Dr. Watson, was known for saying, “Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task”.

Now we have more organised research and data, we are able to see the impact physical touch, or lack of it, can have on developing children.

Essentially, science now confirms what most mothers know: babies thrive on affection.

We now know infants who have their needs met quickly – including the need for affection – are:

  • Healthier overall; perhaps this is related to the epigenetic changes to the immune system
  • More empathetic
  • Generally more productive in adulthood
  • Less likely to experience depression
  • More likely to have healthy and appropriate attachment to their primary caregivers
  • Likely to develop better social skills.

Read Bellybelly article Want To Raise A Productive Adult? Study Says Pick Up Your Baby Whenever She Cries to learn more.

What Does This Mean For Parents?

Although researchers aren’t certain about the long term impact these genetic changes have, it’s clear our babies benefit from close and frequent physical contact.

As a parent, it’s important you make physical contact a regular part of your daily interactions with your infant. This can be done by:

  • Babywearing, and limiting the time your baby spends in baby gear
  • Breastfeeding or bottle nursing
  • Practising skin to skin
  • Keeping baby in your room at night to make answering her needs easier
  • Spending time cuddling your baby

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

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