You take your baby to the pediatrician for her regular check-ups, vaccines, and at the first sign of a fever. You keep her away from runny-nose friends and steer clear of the sun. You babyproof your home and gently bandage her boo-boos.
All to make sure your child grows up healthy and strong. But compelling new research is showing that the strength of your emotional bond with your baby may well trump all of those other measures you take to help her thrive.
There are decades of evidence to back up Dr. Chopra’s claims. In one study from Ohio State University, rabbits that were cuddled by researchers were protected against the artery-clogging effects of a high-cholesterol diet.
The love and attention affected the rabbits’ hormone levels, the study authors concluded, helping them withstand heart disease. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that some female rats took more time and care to lick their infant pups than others; the pups that were licked frequently grew up to be less stressed and more adventurous in temperament, while pups that weren’t groomed as much exhibited nervous, stressed-out behavior.
And yet another study, published in Pediatrics, found that premature babies who were stroked gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those who were not. Such skin-to-skin contact (known as kangaroo care) has been shown to have other health benefits for preemies, too.
There’s more evidence that we’re hardwired to connect with our kids: Pheromones — the chemicals we secrete to attract a partner — are also secreted by our babies, ensuring that we’re similarly smitten with them. In one study, 90 percent of moms were able to identify their newborns by scent alone after having spent as little as ten minutes with them. When the moms spent an hour with their babies, 100 percent of them correctly distinguished their own baby’s smell from the smell of other infants.
A baby recognizes his mother’s scent, too. Last year, researchers in Japan found that infants who smelled their own mother’s milk while undergoing a routine heel-stick procedure exhibited fewer signs of distress than babies who were exposed to the odor of another mother’s milk, formula, or nothing at all. The mere scent of their mother’s breast milk was enough to calm the newborns and ease pain. Here’s an interesting aside: The act of kissing may have evolved as an affectionate gesture because it puts our nose in direct contact with the base of our partner’s nostrils, where pheromones are generated.
Just as scent motivates you to care for your child and motivates your child to stay close to you, so too does a smile. In a recent study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, brain MRIs were taken of women while they looked at photos of their own children and of other kids making sad, happy, and neutral faces. The scans found that when a woman saw a photo of her own child, the parts of her brain associated with rewards processing (meaning they make you feel good!) were activated, and even more so when she saw photos of her child smiling. It’s all very primitive: Mom make Baby smile, Mom get reward, Mom want to make Baby smile again.
But what about nature? Don’t genes have the central role in a child’s physical and emotional development? Well, maybe. But huge strides have been made recently in the field of epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors — everything from what you eat to how much you exercise to the amount of pollution you’re exposed to — can physically alter certain genes, causing them to, in very crude terms, switch “on” or “off.” Epigenetics explains why one identical twin might develop an inheritable disease while the other does not — turning the whole nature vs. nurture debate on its head.
The amount of physical and emotional affection a child receives is another one of those environmental factors that can influence genes. It works like this: Newborns are disorganized bundles of nerves. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they’re incredibly sensitive to hunger, temperature changes, pain, light?everything. They need to be held and soothed to help them regulate all the new sensations. Basically, they’re under stress, and it’s no news that stress is a physical burden. When we’re stressed, our immunity goes down and we’re more likely to get sick. When babies are consistently stressed, it can permanently affect their immunity.
“Immune cells have memory of experiences,” says Dr. Chopra. Stress on a child (in the form of neglect or abuse) can alter the genes that control immunity because the immune cells will always “remember” the damage. A study last year of more than 9,000 adults who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children found that a whopping one third of them were hospitalized for autoimmune diseases as adults, compared to only 8 percent in the general population. Childhood trauma imparted them with a 70 to 100 percent increased risk of developing certain conditions such as Graves’ disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
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