Dear Dr. Debbie,
We are in the holiday season which means lots of visits with relatives. Although we are on our third baby, I am bracing myself for the onslaught of unsolicited advice from, usually older, family members about how much I am holding our four-month-old son.
Anything new in the field to back up our position that babies do best when they’re held a lot?
Arms Full and Loving It
Don’t miss last week’s column Keeping emotions under control — Good Parenting
Dear Dear AFaLI,
Research on attachment is definitely ongoing. Most recently DNA has been added to the mix. Yes, we are born with DNA patterns, however life experiences can determine how genetic potential is expressed.
A study conducted at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute looked at the effects of body contact between parent and child from five weeks of age to four and a half years. Using daily reports from 94 sets of parents about their caregiving routines, families were divided between high physical contact and low physical contact with their young children. The amount of time spent carrying, cuddling, and caressing was counted up.
At about age 4 ½ DNA samples were collected with cheek swabs from each child. The high physical contact group’s DNA had undergone more methylation (a normal process of chemical changes to the DNA strands) and the low contact group had less. The second group’s cheek swab results reflected “less favorable developmental progress,” said Michael Kobor, a Professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. There were consistent differences between the two groups of children at five specific DNA sites which have been linked in adult studies to the health of the immune system and proper metabolism. This study concluded that cuddles play a role for future disease prevention as evidenced by greater or lesser methylation. While many previous researchers, notably Harry Harlow and his mother-deprived monkeys, have supported the practice of holding our babies as much as they want, this is the first physical evidence that human touch impacts something as basic as a developmental process within our DNA.
“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,” says lead author Sarah Moore. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”
So keep cuddling, and enjoy your holidays.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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