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Gentle Touch Important Maternal Attention Focus Of Research

Tue., Sept. 16, 1997

A mother’s gentle touch may truly be the secret to a child’s well-being later in life.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta and McGill University in Montreal studied rats whose mothers licked and groomed them a lot during their first 10 days of life. As adults, those rats tended to respond much better to stress, producing significantly lower levels of potentially destructive “stress hormones.”

Scientists are uncertain how maternal attention could have this lifelong effect, but speculate that early tactile stimulation may trigger the release of hormones that somehow program the developing brain to handle stress more effectively.

The findings do not necessarily “extend to humans,” writes Robert M. Sapolsy of Stanford University in the Sept. 12 issue of Science. But the new research “must spur on work examining how early experience alters the trajectory of our own development.”

“We are in an era filled with parental quandaries, such as the type of day care to provide, the inner-city specter of the dissolution of the family, teen pregnancy, and low government spending on government-sponsored social services during critical periods of brain development,” he writes. Today’s “anxious parent is convinced that one lullaby sung off-key ensures that child will not only one day be a sociopath, but will also never use dental floss.”

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