When caregivers hold an infant frequently, the baby’s DNA changes, researchers in British Columbia found. According to the study, published this month by Cambridge University Press, babies deprived of an adequate amount of holding showed genetic underdevelopment that still persisted at age 4.
The scientists asked parents of 94 5-week-old, healthy infants to keep a daily diary of their babies’ behaviors such as sleeping, crying, fussing, or feeding, as well as the length of time the caregivers provided bodily contact. Four and a half years later, the researchers analyzed the children’s DNA samples. Their results showed consistent differences between children who experienced much physical contact as infants and those who didn’t. The differences occurred at five specific DNA sites, two of which fall within genes that play a role in the immune system and metabolism.
The researchers plan further studies to see if the genetic changes they detected will negatively affect the overall health of the children. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants,” Sarah Moore, lead author of the study, said in a statement. —J.B.