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Why Your Baby Really Needs Hugs

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

There are few ways for babies to communicate: They smile if they're happy, fidget to get comfortable and cry whenever the milk (or formula) dries up. The rest of the time, they just stare—with great curiosity—at anything and everything around them, which makes a parent wonder what else they can feel.

Turns out, though, that babies feel more than anyone could have imagined, and that awareness runs deep.

According to new research from the University of British Columbia (Canada) and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the simple act of touching, early in life, has deeply rooted and potentially lifelong consequences on Baby's genes.

That's right. The amount of close and comforting contact between infants and their caregivers can affect children at a molecular level. In other words, your hugs—or lack thereof—can leave traces on their adorable baby genes.

The study, published November 22 in Development and Psychopathology, involved 94 healthy children in British Columbia. Results indicated that children who had been more distressed as infants—those who had received less physical contact—were likely lagging biologically in that their cells were in some ways underdeveloped.

“In children, we think slower epigenetic aging (a measure of the estimated biological age of tissue) could reflect less favorable developmental progress,” says Michael Kobor, a professor in the department of medical genetics who leads the Healthy Starts program at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

During the analysis, parents of 5-week-old babies were asked to keep a diary of their infants’ behavior (such as sleeping, fussing, crying or feeding), as well as the duration of caregiving that involved bodily contact. When the children were about 4 1/2 years old, researchers from UBC and BC Children’s Hospital sampled their DNA by swabbing the inside of their cheeks.

The team later examined the DNA to determine how active each gene was and how the cells were functioning. In doing so, scientists were able to locate consistent differences between high-contact and low-contact children at five specific DNA sites, two of which fell within genes classes related to the immune system and metabolism.

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.

“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, a postdoctoral fellow.

“If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”

That said, the effects on older child development is unclear. But, to put it simply, the more you hold your baby, the better they’ll feel.

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