Mom's (or Dad's) Touch in Infancy Could Prevent a Stressful Life

Health & Wellness on 11.12.12
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Have you ever watched a mother cat licking her kittens? This behavior may do more than just clean the offspring; maternal licking may reverse the effects of the stress of pregnancy and birth on babies. Moreover, stress in infancy may actually change the pathways which develop in a child’s growing brain.

Stress Changes Growing Brains

At least that is the conclusion of two studies recently released. In one, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that girls who experienced early life stress had measurably higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol at pre-school age, as well as less activity in brain pathways used for emotion regulation when measured in their late teens. Both of these observations correlated with high levels of anxiety experienced by the same girls at age 18. Curiously, similar results were not seen in boys.

These results stem from a group of families that have been followed for over two decades, originally part of a study aimed at quantifying the effects of maternal leave, day care, and other work-related issues on family stress, a cohort known as the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work (WSFW). Scientists working with lead author Dr. Cory Burghy were able to use brain imaging techniques to “show reduced connections between the amygdala or threat center of the brain and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation.”

The availability of data on stress hormone testing and family stress assessments done in the childhood of these now young adults enables researchers to make the link between stress in childhood and current brain images. The study also discovered that the level of adolescent anxiety appears to relate more to those early stresses than to the experiences reported by the teens in their current lives.

Touch Could Improve Stress Coping

A second study by scientists at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester, and King’s College London, suggests a simple solution to help infants recover from early stresses. They examined the hypothesis that stress in infancy causes certain genes involved in regulating stress to become deactivated, and investigated the effects of maternal stroking of infants because of studies showing that maternal licking can reduce the effects of stress on young rats.

The results after about half a year do indicate that infants receiving more maternal stroking fared better, in spite of maternal depression, inter-partner abuse, or other indicators of family stress in the child’s environment. Lead author Helen Sharp explains:

The eventual aim is to find out whether we should recommend that mothers who have been stressed during pregnancy should be encouraged to stroke their babies early in life.

We say: why wait until scientists prove that rubbing your baby helps them mature with better stress coping mechanisms? And presumably, the same effects would be linked to rubbing by Dad as well. So rub your baby today, and everyday, even if the only reward is your infant’s spontaneous smile – it can do no harm and it might just help a lifetime long.

More on these two studies:
Nature Neuroscience     

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