Menu

It’s science: Cuddling your baby changes their DNA—for the better

TLDR: parents should never worry that they're hugging a baby too much.

It’s science: Cuddling your baby changes their DNA—for the better

We know that cuddles are good for newborns, that's why so many parents practice skin-to-skin contact in the earliest days, but a story out of the University of British Columbia shows that cuddles affect babies at an even deeper level than we thought.

According to the study published in the journal of Development and Psychopathology, the cuddles and hugs we give our babies have a lasting impact at the molecular level, for years. Basically, cuddling with your baby is changing their genes.

Researchers followed 94 healthy, 5-week-old babies, asking parents to keep diaries of when the babies ate, slept, fed and cried, as well as how much bodily contact there was during caregiving. Four and a half years later, the children's cheeks were swabbed so that scientists could examine their DNA.

The researchers found that the kids who had been cuddled and held less, and been more distressed when they were babies, had a molecular profile in their cells that was underdeveloped for their age. “In children, we think slower epigenetic aging could reflect less favorable developmental progress," says Michael Kobor, a Professor in UBC's Department of Medical Genetics.

The researchers figured this out by looking at DNA methylation, a process that changes how genes function, affecting their expression. According to the researchers, DNA methylation involves molecules which act like “dimmer switches," controlling how active each gene is.

There were consistent differences in the DNA methylation of the kids who had been cuddled a lot and those who hadn't. The kids who got fewer hugs and were more distressed in infanthood had a lower than expected “epigenetic age" at four and a half.

“We plan to follow up on whether the 'biological immaturity' we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development," says the study's lead author, Sarah Moore. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants."

In the meantime, parents should never worry that they're hugging a baby too much, because it's not just their cells, but their brains, too, that benefit. Another study out of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found early, gentle displays of affection from parents and caregivers have lasting effects on how baby brains react to gentle touch. So hug on, mamas.

[This post was originally published November 29, 2017.]

You might also like:

In This Article

    Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

    There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

    With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

    Minimize smoke exposure.

    Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

    Do your best to filter the air.

    According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

    Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

    "Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

    Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

    "COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

    Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

    Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

    Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

    Most importantly, don't panic.

    In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

    This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

    Our Partners

    Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

    So, what's new this week?

    Rae Wellness: Essential daily supplements to help you shine from the inside out

    Rae Wellness is a women-led company with the belief that nurturing your mind and body isn't just essential—it's your power. Their collection of daily supplements leverage vegan, non-gmo, high quality ingredients to help you "shine from the inside out." With formulas to designed to fuel your calm, sleep, energy and more, consider them your daily dose of self care, mama. Even better, 5% of every purchase goes directly to Girls. Inc., the non-profit organization that inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold through direct service and advocacy.

    Beyond Yoga: Luxuriously soft athleisure you'll want to wear 24/7

    Whether you're lounging or lunging, the butter-soft activewear from Beyond Yoga is designed to support women to live fully and confidently. Their thoughtful, California made pieces are crafted with every woman's shape in mind, complementing curves and laying comfortably on all body types.

    The Dairy Fairy: Feminine, functional intimates for nursing and pumping mamas

    As any mama who has wrestled herself into a less than sexy, over-the-top utilitarian nursing bra knows, it can be quite the demoralizing experience. Add to that the annoyance of having to switch out to a completely different contraption in order to pump hands-free, and it's even more of a let down (pun not necessarily intended.) Frustrated by this all-to-universal dance, founder Emily Ironi made it her mission to create an all-in-one bra that not only works for moms, but celebrates them. Her line of pretty, feminine intimates for nursing and pumping combine function with aesthetics to keep you looking and feeling your best as you rock new motherhood.

    Milkful: The Dairy Fairy's size inclusive sister company

    Part of the Dairy Fairy's mission was to create a line of nursing and pumping bras that would make women feel comfortable and confident. Since launching in 2012, Emily heard from many women of different shapes and sizes, asking, "why doesn't this come in my size?" Adding sizes to the line didn't quite feel like enough. Instead, she set out to create an entirely new way to support their specific needs during such an important time in their lives. Thus, Milkful's line of size inclusive nursing and pumping intimates was born.

    Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    Cameron Diaz on having a baby at 47: 'You really have to work hard for it'

    "The only pressure for me now is I have to live to be, like, 107, you know? No pressure!"

    This is the decade that saw the face of first-time motherhood change. The number of first-time mamas under 30 is shrinking, while more and more women are becoming moms after 40.

    Cameron Diaz is one of them. The actress and businesswoman, now 48, became a mom in January at the age of 47. In a new episode of Naomi Campbell's YouTube series, No Filter, Diaz opens up about what it's like to become a mom in your fourth decade.

    "A lot of people do it the other way around ... they get married [and] have a family in their youth," says Diaz."I'm kind of doing it in the second half of my life."

    Keep reading Show less
    News