According to new research from the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the amount of comforting contact (good old-fashioned human touch) caregivers offer their infants can influence children at a molecular level. A study published in Development and Psychopathology revealed that children who were distressed as infants and received less physical contact were underdeveloped for their age at a cellular level.
Human touch has biochemical consequences for infants
Researchers of 94 healthy 5-week old infants asked parents to chart their child’s behavior (sleeping, fussing, crying, or feeding) and the amount of care they provided through bodily contact. Then at 4 ½ years old, the researchers sampled the childrens’ DNA to track a biochemical modification known as DNA methylation.
The study distinguished methylation changes (affecting genetic immunity and metabolism) between children who received contact and those who did not. The results? Children who received less physical comfort had an epigenetic age that was lower than expected, given their actual age. Essentially, human contact early in life has a deeply-rooted effect on biochemical changes that affect gene expression.
Supplemental research conducted on rats
While this is first study to demonstrate that the simple act of touching has profound influence on gene expression in humans, there is supplemental evidence from animal studies to support the latest claim. In The Better Baby Book, we talk about a similar experiment conducted with rats: the pups of calm mothers were swapped with pups from anxious mothers, each mother raising, licking, and grooming the other’s pups. It turned out that the anxious pups became calm under the care of the calm mother rat. Scientists then concluded that the calm mother’s behavior caused permanent changes in the way the anxious pups’ genes were translated.
So what does this mean? Social interaction does affect gene translation in animals and humans, especially during important developmental phases. However, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing parents can do for their kids if they weren’t able to provide close, physical comfort during infancy. After all, this is just one study and more research is needed to understand all the links between human contact and healthy development — at every age.
What’s important is to recognize that there is still time to help shape their life in infinite ways.
For instance, have you hugged your child today? Hugging releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that encourages bonding and empathy — so hug often. Check in with your kids, — maybe even go on a mother-son or father-daughter date, one-on-one, to truly connect. To learn more nurturing ways to care for your kids, read 8 Hacks to Stress-free Mornings with Kids and Can Kids Eat Bulletproof?
What may matter most is that they feel loved, so their brains wire to attach to you — to trust you, and in turn, trust the world.