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

Rossland council encourages everyone to support locals only recommendations. Photo: Jim Bailey.
Rossland council promotes ‘Locals Only’ inititative

Rossland mayor encourages people to restrict travel and enjoy what your home has to offer

Caroline Lafond is a Recreation Fish and Wildlife student at Selkirk College. Photo: Submitted
Ecological Comment: Help keep the goats of Gimli wild

A column written by Recreation Fish and Wildlife students at Selkirk College

The West Kootenay Timberwolves received $1535 in relief funding. Photo: Submitted
Three Rossland sports groups receive provincial funding

28 sports groups across the Kootenay will be receiving money from the Local Sport Relief Fund

Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union president Andy Davidoff. Photo: Jennifer Small
An open letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Whiteside: Let’s stop harming our children during a pandemic

A letter from Andrew Davidoff, President Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

Most Read