In the early years of my psychology training, the story of an historic experiment performed to determine the language of God was shared by a tutor. According to the tutor, a nobleman had a foster parent raise two babies to see which language the babies would speak first and whichever it was would be the language of God.
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The babies were not spoken to or held as part of the experiment. Nobody ever found out what language the babies spoke, the tutor said, because the babies died. They failed to thrive due to lack of touch and physical expressions of love. It’s one of the few things that stuck in my mind from the undergraduate years, even though I’ve failed to determine if the ending was true.
One of my babies was a fussy baby. I held that baby a lot. Echoes of my training and that story about the importance of touch filled my head during those early years as I tried to survive emotionally and also meet my fussy baby’s many needs. It was an exhausting time I wouldn’t wish to repeat. The results from a recent study, which is the first of its kind to look at how touch effects genes, made me reflect on how important all that touch and holding was.
The study, a combined effort by the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, found that being held as a baby changes the genes that are responsible for our ability to thrive. Specifically, the study found that children who experienced higher levels of distress and were held less had a lower epigenetic age than those who were held more often.
Those children that had less physical contact were found to have a molecular profile in their cells that was immature for their age. This means that it’s possible that they were lagging biologically compared to the high-touch children.
“In children, we think slower epigenetic ageing might indicate an inability to thrive,” said Michael Kobor, a Professor in the UBC Department of Medical Genetics who leads the “Healthy Starts” theme at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
94 healthy children participated in the study. Parents of five-week-old babies kept a diary of their babies’ behavior (such as sleeping, fussing, crying, or feeding) as well as caregiving that involved bodily contact. Parents were also required to quote how long the physical contact lasted. At four and a half years old, the children’s DNA was sampled using cheek swabs.
The research team found that high-contact and low-contact children differed at five specific DNA sites. Two of these sites related to health genes: one plays a role in the immune system, and the other is involved in metabolism. The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had an epigenetic age that was lower than expected for their age. Such a divergence has been linked to poor health in several 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,” 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.”
All those countless hours spent holding, patting, rocking, and soothing was worth it, not just because my child is reasonably well-adjusted today, but also because her long-term health outcomes are likely better.
It’s often draining and exhausting to have a distressed baby, due to medical or special needs, or just a generally fussy temperament. If you’re overwhelmed by your baby’s need to be held, ask for help from friends and relatives. Have them hold your baby. This will help you, and your baby.