It seems like common sense, really, but what I’ve been hoping all along as a parent has finally been proven true by scientific research. “Babies who receive above-average levels of affection and attention from their mothers are less likely than other babies to grow up to be emotionally distressed, anxious, or hostile adults,” according to Health.com.
Dr. Joanna Maselko of Duke University and her team traced the behavioral patterns of nearly 500 men and women from infancy to adulthood (above age 30) and discovered that even a single day’s observation proved mothers who snuggle with and dote on their babies are ensuring the “future psychological health of that infant.”
Maselko and her colleagues believe that the release of oxytocin, a.k.a. “the cuddle hormone,” is what inhibits the production of anxiety by strengthening the area of the brain that promotes happiness. “Oxytocin adds [to] the perception of trust and support, and hence is very helpful in building social bonds,” Maselko explains. “It’s plausible that close parent-child bonds help support the neural development of the areas of the brain that make and use oxytocin, setting up the child for more effective social interactions and mental health in the future.”
Giving birth vaginally and breastfeeding both activate the release of oxytocin. But even if you gave birth via c-section and switched quickly to formula (*raises hand*), there’s still hope. Any form of “extravagant” or “caressing” affection on the part of mothers led to reduced anxiety in their children as adults.
This is especially important to me, as I come from a long line of anxiety-riddled women. I experienced crippling panic attacks in college after the death of my grandparents and relapsed (thankfully, to a lesser degree) after my father died in 2008. (Death triggers anxiety in me, sure, but it doesn’t help that in college I was dancing with Mary Jane and more recently dancing with the devil – I mean – getting divorced.) I feel fine these days, but I’m aware that another tragedy could send me spinning again. And of course I’m worried that my daughter will be susceptible to the same feelings. I have focused so much energy over the last year on hugging those anxiety genes right out of her. To be sure, I snuggled with her all the time as an infant, too, but somehow being struck with the intense wave of depression and dread that comes along with death and divorce, I knew that if I wanted my daughter to react to these things differently as an adult, she had to have a different foundation as a child.
Maselko says the study, which appears in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, makes “a strong case for paid parental leave.” Researchers argue that infant-massage classes and other tools promoting parent-child bonding should be covered by medical insurance, as a means of pro-actively promoting mental health. Dr. Robin Gurwitch of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital says, “Early experience can be a mediating factor on what happens to us as adults, and we need to look at things that we can do to… serve as a protective factor later.”
Researchers acknowledge another perhaps obvious trend in their results, that poor mothers were less-likely to offer “extravagant” or “caressing” affection, suggesting that “social and financial difficulties during childhood could play a role in adult emotional distress.” What’s most encouraging to me, though, is that this study intimates what Deepak Chopra and other self-help gurus and scientists have suggested: no matter how troubled your past, your current behavior can change your DNA.
Photo: Edwin Dalorzo via Flickr