For most of us, the urge hold our babies and cover them in kisses is strong. And yet, we get a lot of mixed messages about how much and how often to actually do it. Everyone and their mother (literally) has opinions about this, being quick to chime in if they feel we are spoiling our babies or somehow ruining them for life.
Thankfully, science seems to prove them wrong. Study after study shows that holding your baby is 100% good for them — and the more, the better.
A study from 2016, for example, showed that practicing skin-to-skin with your newborn leads to higher IQs and better neurodevelopment. And another study, from April of this year, showed the importance of touch for preemies, concluding that gentle and responsive touch has lifelong positive effects and is crucial for proper development.
And now, you can add yet another groundbreaking piece of research to the list. A brand new study published by Cambridge University Press has found that cuddling and holding babies actually changes them on a genetic level. Other studies have shown how human contact affect babies behaviorally and developmentally, but this is the first study that looked at the molecular changes that happened in children as a result of touch in their infant years (or lack thereof, in some cases).
Pretty freaking amazing what science can do, amiright?
Here’s the lowdown on the study. According to Science Daily, the research was conducted by scientists from the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. What they found is that babies who had been more distressed as infants, and who had received less human contact, had a “molecular profile” in their cells that showed a lag in proper development for their age. These effects were detectable even four years later.
What does this all mean exactly?
“In children, we think slower epigenetic aging might indicate an inability to thrive,” says Michael Kobor, Professor at the University of British Columbia.
Although the researchers note that it is as of yet unclear exactly how these biological changes might affect children in the long run, the research builds on previous similar results seen in rodents and is the first of its kind to show similar epigenetic changes in humans.
For the study, the team of researchers followed 94 children from infancy through early childhood. At 5 weeks old, their caretakers were asked to keep a diary of their babies’ behavior (fussing, crying, sleeping, feeding) as well as how often they received human contact and touch. Then, when the children were about 4-1/2 years old, their cheeks were swabbed for DNA, which was then examined by the researchers.
The researchers were looking specifically at the methylation of the DNA, which can be affected by external factors and conditions, most notably in childhood. Science Daily explained the results of this study: “Scientists found consistent methylation differences between high-contact and low-contact children at five specific DNA sites. Two of these sites fall within genes: One plays a role in the immune system, and the other is involved in metabolism.”
So what does that all mean in layman’s terms? Basically, the babies who received less human contact had a lower “epigenetic age” than those who received an abundance of cuddles and hugs. And again, although the scientists don’t precisely know how these lags might affect the children researched, similar molecular lags have proven to have poor health outcomes in other recent studies.
“We plan on following up to see whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development,” said Sarah Moore, lead author of the study. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”
In other words: Parents, hold your babies as much and as long as you damn well please. Forget about what anyone else says. Follow your instincts. Pamper your babies, especially when they are innocent little bundles of nothing but love. And the more your baby fusses and cries, chances are, the more they need to be held.
Really, you can’t go wrong here. Holding your baby just makes sense, and giving them as much affection as you are able to will have positive outcomes for them for life. And once again, science has got your back on this one.