Mother holding baby. (Needpix.com)

Mother holding baby. (Needpix.com)

Early love from mothers can lead to many positives later in life for kids

The amount of time that a baby is held can leave a biological mark on their DNA

They say a mother’s hug lasts long after she lets go.

Researchers can now see the lasting imprints of this love in their labs, gaining new insight into the long-held belief that warm and nurturing care from birth is good for babies.

By studying the ways a child’s brain develops, to how their genes turn on and off, and how their immune systems work, researchers can see how a mother’s early nurturing influences her child’s health into adulthood and can also buffer the effects of negative life experiences, like childhood poverty.

Research like this can hold special meaning on Mother’s Day.

“The first few weeks are very, very, very important … setting a course for life,” said Dr. Patricia Silveira, a neuroscientist and pediatrician at McGill University in Montreal.

“The parent is shaping the brain and its connections at these early stages.”

Chaya Kulkarni, director of infant mental health promotion at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, has similar thoughts.

“It’s easy to assume that the brain will simply grow on its own,” she said. “But for the brain to grow to its fullest potential, it needs good nourishment and responsive and appropriate caregiving.

“In a baby’s brain every second, one million connections are created between brain cells and we never match that later in life.”

Those connections depend on how a baby and their caregiver respond to one another. Kulkami says whether caregivers consistently respond when a baby cries and whether the parent encourages cooing and coos back to their infant “literally changes the shape of the brain — the number and strength of connections (between brain cells).”

Even simple touch and cuddling of a baby affects how they grow and develop, and leaves marks on their DNA.

For more than 20 years, studies in rats have shown that babies of mothers who spend a lot of time grooming and caring for their offspring grow better, have better functioning immune systems and show fewer stress behaviours later in life than the babies of mothers who do not spend as much time caring for them.

These effects persist even if those babies are removed and placed with a mother who is not as nurturing. The early experience seems to be “baked in.”

“In animal studies, what is very clear is that the early maternal care behaviour is predictive of a whole range of behaviours and outcomes in the offspring,” said Kieran O’Donnell, assistant professor of epigenetics and epidemiology at McGill. A key effect is that the offspring have a “more efficient shutting down of the stress response.”

This finding has been seen in people as well, with infants whose mothers have consistently responded to their early needs and to whom they show a secure attachment.

The hormones and structures that control the stress response are better regulated so the infants can respond to a stressful moment but also turn that off after the threat has passed, said Sarah Merrill, a postdoctoral fellow in medical genetics at the University of British Columbia.

QUIZ: In honour of mothers

A 2017 study showed that even just the amount of time that a baby is held leaves a biological mark on their DNA.

“The kids who were held the least were more distressed and their DNA looked delayed for their age … the kids who were held the most were not highly distressed and had a more advanced DNA age appearance,” said Sarah Moore, also a postdoctoral fellow in medical genetics at UBC.

Researchers in the field caution that while biological imprints of nurturing can be clearly seen, it’s not always clear what they mean.

“Human studies are messy. These are associations and we can’t say that they are causal,” said Michael Kobor, professor and Canada Research Chair in social epigenetics at the UBC. “But there are a lot of associations between the early life environment, such as the amount of holding or family stress, and changes to the DNA … How we behave with our children gets under their skin and can last a lifetime.”

Researchers also caution that this area of study should not be used to blame mothers for not being a “perfect parent” but to reassure them that the love and attention they show their babies has positive effects for a lifetime.

Research also shows that changes to the DNA may be reversible.

And although many of the studies involve mothers, nurturing from fathers and other caregivers is important, too.

Having a loving early childhood doesn’t only impact the development of the brain, the stress response and DNA activity, though. Increasing scientific evidence shows that the immune system is impacted as well.

Greg Miller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research in Chicago, says that similar to the stress response system, the immune system is sensitive to early life nurturing.

The inflammatory immune response is not as well regulated without this nurturing, particularly for children experiencing hardship like poverty. This can result in immune responses “lingering and causing collateral damage.”

He says that this can be seen as worsening of asthma problems, and increased risk of heart disease, insulin regulation problems, and progression of atherosclerotic heart disease.

It is well known that growing up in poverty carries health risks, but researchers have been interested to know if a loving childhood can reverse these effects.

Miller’s study of more than 170 American adults showed that those who grew up poor, even if they were not poor at the current time, were more likely to develop a cold when exposed to a virus than those who were not poor as children. But the research also showed that having caring, loving and supportive parents reversed this in a majority of cases — the positive childhood experience could protect them from getting the cold.

Researchers call this a buffering effect — that love and nurturing in childhood can protect against the negative effects of other life circumstances.

Positive childhood experiences might also keep people healthy well into adulthood.

Silveira’s new research, with more than 300,000 adults in Britain, shows those who describe their childhood as loving had lower rates of physical and mental health disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and schizophrenia.

Michelle Ward is a pediatrician, associate professor and journalist in Ottawa.

Michelle Ward, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Mother's Day

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
Abbotsford mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

Mission Fire Rescue Service holding a training session in 2016. Bob Friesen photo.
Firefighter’s human-rights complaint against District of Mission dismissed

District had just reason for firing man for insubordination, B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found

The annual Toys for Tots event in Abbotsford normally includes a free breakfast for anyone who drops off a toy or cash donation. This year’s event was to be held as a drive-thru, but that has also been cancelled. (File photo)
Toys for Tots drive-thru event cancelled in Abbotsford

Public encouraged to donate cash or bring toys to drop-off locations

Abbotsford Panthers star Haidyn Vermeulen (right) celebrates his signing with the Alberta Golden Bears football program along with his mother Niki Vermeulen and father Dan Vermeulen back in September.
Abbotsford’s Haidyn Vermeulen named to CFC Prospect Game

Abbotsford Senior Secondary School student one of 14 from B.C. to earn recognition

Shane Goodvin had just bought a house with wife Laura Major when he started experiencing severe back pain. That led to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and the father of five children is now in rough shape. (Submitted photos)
GoFundMe set up for Chilliwack man fighting pancreatic cancer

Shane Goodvin has five children and a loving wife, and he’s worried about their future

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. daily COVID-19 cases hits record 941 on Tuesday

Further restrictions on indoor exercise take effect

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

File photo
Surrey RCMP investigating death threat against Surrey councillor

‘On Monday morning I received a threat on messenger that basically said to put a bullet in me,’ Councillor Jack Hundial told the Now-Leader

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

A fentanyl test strip is used at Vancouver Coastal Health in Vancouver, Tuesday, January, 21, 2020. The test strips will be made available to drug users to ensure that their drugs are safe and free of Fentanyl. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Drug overdoses lead to 5 deaths each day in October; drug toxicity continues to increase

COVID-19 crisis continues to exacerbate the overdose crisis

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Damien Smith, with father Thomas Smith, is “frozen” with joy as he watches a special message Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds recorded for Damien’s 9th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (Contributed)
Shuswap boy celebrates 9th birthday with family, community and Ryan Reynolds

People from around the world send birthday cards showing young Canoe resident he’s not alone

Most Read