Science shows the simple act of touching your baby, like when you hug and snuggle, has deeply-rooted and potentially lifelong consequences. But a study from the University of British Columbia and BC Children's Hospital Research Institute found that the amount of close and comforting physical contact between infant and parent may have an impact on the child's genes.
Published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, the study involved 96 healthy 5-week-old infants. The parents of the babies were asked to keep a diary of their children's behavior, including their sleeping, crying, and feeding, as well as the duration of the bodily contact they had with their little ones. Four years later, researchers collected DNA samples from the now-preschoolers to analyze.
They found that the children who “had been more distressed as infants and had received less physical contact had a molecular profile that was underdeveloped for their age,” Science Daily reported. In particular, there were differences in genes which played a role in the immune system and those involved in metabolism.
“If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants,” Sarah Moore, a postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of the study.
Learning about the benefits of touch in babies is nothing new. In fact, early parent-child skin-to-skin contact is included in the Essential Newborn Care (ENC) protocol, which is adopted as the First Embrace or Unang Yakap program in the Philippines. The four steps on what to do immediately after a baby is born is followed by most hospitals in the country.
The protocol includes instructions to place the newborn on mom's chest as soon as he is born. The direct skin-to-skin contact transfers the mother's warmth and protective bacteria that helps keep the baby calm and healthy. Separation from the mother almost always causes the baby distress.
“Direct skin-to-skin contact is recommended for no less than 90 minutes, or at least until the first breastfeeding should have been completed,” pediatrician Dr. Howard L. Sobel, coordinator for the Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Adolescent Health at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for the Western Pacific, told SmartParenting.com.ph.
The Unang Yakap program also promotes Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), which is essentially prolonged skin-to-skin contact. It may also be done by the father or the baby's older siblings. “Aside from promoting better bonding between parent and child, KMC helps facilitate exclusive breastfeeding which, in turn, strengthens the baby’s immune system,” says Dr. Sobel.
Skin-to-skin contact is highly beneficial to premature babies, babies born with low birth weight, babies who need a ventilator, and jaundice babies receiving phototherapy. “Preterm babies often have a problem called apnea of prematurity, where they stop breathing multiple times in a minute. When placed in KMC and skin to skin contact, this is reduced,” Dr. Sobel added.
ENC also includes immediate drying of newborns, delayed cord clamping, and initiation of exclusive breastfeeding. Read more about it here.