A new study suggests physical contact with your baby isn’t just about bonding, it’s actually improving their health at the DNA level.
This is unlikely to be a controversial statement but I contend there are very few experiences that bring me more pure and uncomplicated joy than holding my child.
The highlights of my day all involve my one-year-old son and I in close contact … him sitting on my knee as we read That’s Not My Hat for the 1,000th time, snuggling into my arms as I rock him to sleep, or being swung around while we dance to They Might Be Giants.
But those moments aside, I also find myself automatically ruffling his hair or tickling his feet or just intercepting him for a hug as he runs past giggling insanely like the adorable weirdo that he is.
And in so doing, it turns out that I have very possibly been helping prime him for his future growth and development.
Time to Touch
All humans require physical contact. In fact, they can suffer from psychological disorders when touch is denied to them.
This is one of the many reasons why many countries have defined solitary confinement to be a form of torture.
And, as it turns out, it looks like touch has measurable effects on infant development.
Cuddling Unlocks the Potential of Your Genes?
A recent study from the University of British Columbia and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute looked at 94 children over five years.
It found those who had been distressed as infants (poor sleep, difficulty feeding, greater levels of crying and fussing) and received less physical contact from their caregivers showed DNA evidence of underdevelopment in their cells later in life.
To put it simply, kids who have ‘tall’ genes might not grow quite as tall as they might have if left uncuddled.
To put it scientifically, the researchers think cuddling has positive effects on development because of something called epigenetics.
Your genes determine all sorts of things about you, from the formation of your organs to the colour of your eyes to what diseases you might be susceptible to.
But epigenetics influence what, how, when and even whether those genes are activated.
For example, your genes might indicate you’ll grow to over six feet in height but epigenetic influences such as a trauma, childhood malnutrition, disease or environmental pollution might delay or prevent those genes for growth being biochemically activated to full expression.
In other words, dads aren’t just responsible for keeping our little squirts alive – we might have their genetic destiny resting on our shoulders too.
What Does it Mean for Dads?
Now before you freak out and put your kid in a permanent, vice-like embrace “for his own good,” remember to take this study with a big grain of salt.
This is just one study. The researchers have drawn no conclusions on what this means for later child development.
While some studies have drawn a link between epigenetics and poor health later in life, this study doesn’t go that far –that’s research that is yet to be done.
What we do know is that some rodent studies have shown a link between epigenetics and later development, which suggests that this might be true of human beings as well.
Regardless, the takeaway from this study is that all that hugging and tickling you’re doing just could be helping your child grow up healthy and strong. So why not go give them a nice gene-enhancing cuddle right now?