By spending more time her baby – playing, cuddling, and talking to her, a mother helps in shaping the baby's hormone system for future social interactions. A study found when babies up to the age of 18-months are touched and talked to more often; it helps in developing better receptors for oxytocin.
To assess the development of oxytocin in the early months after birth, the University of Virginia conducted a study on 101 mothers and babies. Oxytocin plays a significant role in social bonding and its production increases in mothers during and after childbirth; thus, it is also referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical.”
The team headed by Kathleen Krol recruited mothers with 5-month-old babies. They observed the pattern of interaction of the mother with her baby when the two of them were left alone for 5 minutes with toys and a book. This interaction was then scored based on factors such as the proximity of the mother to the baby, eye contact, her ability to catch baby's clues, and her reaction to the same. The same session was repeated when the babies were 18-months-old.
During each session, they collected DNA from the saliva of both the mothers and babies to study the gene that codes for the receptor for oxytocin. Between the two play sessions, though the mothers’ levels of methylation, at the oxytocin receptor gene, remained constant, it varied in babies. Mothers who have been more involved with the babies during the play session helped in decreasing the level of methylation, which suggests that the gene is "switched off." And mothers with less involvement caused an increase in the level of methylation.
Krol says that the study suggests babies with more involved play during their early infancy, have more oxytocin receptors. Their temperament also varied, and they seemed to be less frustrated or excessively sensitive to intense lights, sounds, and textures. She adds, “We have no reason to believe this is specific to mothers. My hypothesis would be that the behaviour of the father and other important caregivers is also influencing this system.”
These findings can help in shaping the attitude of the caregiver towards a child. She says, “The most important factors we found were things like how close the mother was to her baby… things like touch are very important, and also how talkative she was.”
However, Emma Meaburn at Birkbeck, University of London, believes it is too early to conclude and give parenting advice. She believes the research conducted by Krol has considered only a specific region of one gene, and complex human behavior is unlikely to depend on a particular gene.
While researchers conduct a further in-depth study, as parents and caregivers, we can spend more time with our little ones – even if it doesn't help in shaping their future social interaction, it will surely make them feel more secure and connected with us.