How A Mother Plays With A Baby Has Long-Term Effects, Study Finds

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Researchers have long been studying the bond between parents and their children—and how that bond deeply affects the baby's development, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Well, according to this new study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers have discovered another way that development is influenced by the parent-child bond: And it's actually the system that controls human bonding itself, the oxytocin system.

The hormone oxytocin is incredibly important: It's released by the pituitary gland during physical or social bonding (you might have heard it called the "cuddle hormone"). The oxytocin system refers to the hormone and hormone receptors that allow it to present its effects (read: making a person feel the connection). We already know that a parent-child bond can affect the hormone's level in the body, both in the parent and baby. For example, studies show skin-to-skin contact can cause a surge in oxytocin so both the mother and child feel bonded.

But in this study, the researchers specifically looked at the development of those receptors, and if there were any influencing factors in their development. Enter: playtime.

"We collected saliva samples from both the mother and the infant during the visit and then a year later, when the child was 18 months old. We were interested in exploring whether the involvement of the mother, in the original play session, would have an influence on the oxytocin receptor gene of the child, a year later. The oxytocin receptor is essential for the hormone oxytocin to exert its effects and the gene can determine how many are produced," explains Kathleen Krol, Ph.D., a Hartwell postdoctoral fellow who worked with Jessica Connelly, Ph.D., at the University of Virginia; they also conducted the study together with Tobias Grossmann at Max Planck Institute CBS.

"We found that changes had occurred in infants' DNA, and that this change was predicted by the quality of the mother's involvement in the play session. If mothers were more involved in the game with their children, there was a greater reduction in DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene one year later. Decreased DNA methylation has previously been associated with increased expression of the oxytocin receptor gene. Thus, greater maternal involvement seems to have the potential to up-regulate the oxytocin system in human offspring," says Krol.

OK, what does that mean? How a caregiver bonds with the child during playtime can affect that child's oxytocin receptors long term. And more engaged play means more oxytocin receptors. Less engaged play means fewer receptors. More receptors means better expression of the feelings of connection; fewer receptors means fewer feelings of connection.

And how does this play out in life? Krol goes on to explain: "Importantly, we also found that this reflected infant temperament, which was reported to us by the parents. The children with presumably lower levels of oxytocin receptor were also more temperamental and less well balanced."

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