A recent study published last month in Development and Psychopathology, and conducted by the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, gives us even more of a reason to snuggle our babies when they are little.
Apparently, the amount of close, comforting contact between a child and his or her caregiver early in life can have a lasting effect on a cellular level. In the study, the parents of 94 healthy five-week-old babies were asked to keep a journal about the behavior of their children — everything from sleeping to fussiness — as well as the duration of physical contact that was given to them. Over four years later, the DNA of the children was sampled by swabbing the insides of their cheeks.
The scientists looked at a biochemical modification called DNA methylation, which can ultimately affect how cells function. According to Science Daily, the “extent of methylation, and where on the DNA it specifically happens, can be influenced by external conditions, especially in childhood.”
The children in the study showed methylation differences, depending on how much physical contact they had experienced as infants. Specifically, the differences occurred in genes that involved the immune system and in those that are related to metabolism. “The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had an ‘epigenetic age’ that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such a discrepancy has been linked to poor health in several recent studies,” the report explained.
It remains unclear what these findings mean in the long term. Since the evidence of close contact was apparent well after toddlerhood, there is a chance that the benefits of holding infants can be crucial to healthy development into adulthood.