Mother's Touch Turns on Parenting Genes

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handsWith their roly-poly sausage thighs, dimpled hands and neck rolls, babies are made for cuddling. They fit perfectly in the crook of an elbow and sleep best curled up on top of a person who loves them. All that snuggle time serves an important purpose -- security, attachment, trust -- but it might also set off a sequence of DNA events that will eventually determine how a baby parents her own child.

Columbia University neurobiologist Francis Champagne studied the mothering tendencies of female rats. Mama rats who licked and groomed their babies (the rat version of cuddling) raised daughters who went on to lick their own babies. Daughter rats of non-licking mothers treated their own children the same way.

This might seem like a nurture issue. We learn what we live, so baby rats either learn or don't learn to lick their babies. But Champagne discovered that in baby rats who weren't licked and groomed, genes affecting mother skills were actually turned off. "Mothers are incredibly important, so the quality of care that they're able to provide to infants is critical for shaping infant development, and will have consequences for the next generations of mothers and infants," says Champagne.

Between slings, carriers, breastfeeding, co-sleepers and infant massage, our generation has the "touch" part of parenting down pat. New parenthood these days is an especially physical experience. The most common complaint among mothers of babies and toddlers is "I just need to spend a few hours without someone touching me." Even at an independent six and four, my girls still find comfort in a cuddle on my lap...the first place they turn when times are tough.

Think back to when your babies were brand new. How did you use touch to soothe them? And do you still use touch to calm your older kids today?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.