Babies are born cute, cuddly and huggable! But here’s one more reason you should hug babies as often as you can.
The amount of close and comforting hugs that babies receive has an impact on the infant’s molecular level. The effect is positive for their health and can last for years, according to a new study by the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
Babies who did not get physical contact when they were distressed were seen to be lagging behind biologically. They were detected with a molecular profile in their cells that was underdeveloped for their age.
Genetic Impact of a Hug
The study, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, is the first to show that the simple act of hugging babies has lifelong consequences on their epigenome. An epigenome is a network of chemical compounds surrounding the DNA. An epigenome can modify the genome without altering the DNA sequences and contributes to determining which genes are active in a particular cell.
Simply put, an epigenome can cause changes at the molecular level depending on the external factors people are exposed to such as diet, stress levels, family environment, and one-off traumatic events. The study of epigenomes, called epigenetics, has opened up new research possibilities to explain and cure illnesses, such as cancer, that a genetic legacy alone cannot clarify.
“In children, we think slower epigenetic aging could reflect less favorable developmental progress,” said Michael Kobor, professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at BC Children’s Hospital Research. Kobor was part of the research team which evaluated 94 healthy babies in British Columbia.
Fewer Hugs, Poor Health
For the study, parents were asked to keep a diary of their 5-week-old babies which detailed their behavior such as sleeping, fussing, crying or feeding as well as the duration of the caregiving that involved physical contact. When the children were about four-and-a-half years old, their DNA was tested by way of an oral swab.
The DNA analysis showed that babies who were distressed and not soothed by the caregiver through hugs or physical contact had an epigenetic age that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such a divide between their epigenetic age and actual age has been linked to poor health in recent studies.
The researchers plan to follow up on whether the biological immaturity found in these children carried broad implications for their health, especially in their psychological development. If further research confirms this initial finding, it will highlight the importance of comforting hugs, especially for distressed infants.