A new study says that the amount of cuddles babies gets not just keeps them warm and snugly, but can actually affect babies at the molecular level, and the effects can last for years.
The study further reveals that babies who get less physical contact and are more distressed at a young age end up with changes in molecular processes that affect gene expression.
There are lots of unanswered questions particularly to what causes the change, however, and the team from the University of British Columbia in Canada say that it’s still very early days for this research.
Scientists have long known that human touch is good for us and our development in all kinds of ways, but this is the first study to look at how it might be changing the epigenetics of human babies.
For the study, parents of 94 babies were asked to keep diaries of their touching and cuddling habits from five weeks after birth, as well as logging the behaviour of the infants – sleeping, crying, and so on.
After 4.5 years, DNA swabs were taken of the kids to analyse a biochemical modification called DNA methylation — an epigenetic mechanism in which some parts of the chromosome are tagged with small carbon and hydrogen molecules, often changing how genes function and affecting their expression.
The researchers found DNA methylation (which acts a marker for normal biological development and the processes that go along with it and can be influenced by external/environmental factors) differences between “high-contact” children and “low-contact” children at five specific DNA sites, two of which were within genes: one related to the immune system, and one to the metabolic system.
The research has been published in Development and Psychopathology.