A child’s reaction to stress may be influenced by the mother’s actions.

Scientists from Washington State University discovered that a mother’s behavior toward her 12-month-old baby may influence genes associated with regulating the body’s response to stress.

According to some studies, mother-infant interactions may influence the emotional responses of the child. For instance, a study conducted in 2009 revealed that infants born to depressed mothers had lower levels of social engagement, less developed regulatory behaviors, and more negative emotions.

Scientists think that a person’s ability to deal with stress as an adult may be shaped in infancy, but the mechanisms behind this are unknown.

However, Washington State University researchers may have discovered a connection between the specific molecular processes in the child’s brain that shape the stress response and the quality of a mother’s behavior toward her infant.

The research team looked at 114 mother-infant pairs from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children for the study that was published in the American Journal of Human Biology. While reading a picture book, the team looked at whether the mother’s interactions with their 12-month-old children were warm or cold.

During the examination, the researchers found that the scope of warmth didn’t differ altogether. In the study, however, they classified the “coldest” behavior as either awkward or neutral.

Then, the group contrasted the noticed way of behaving and the kids’ blood work when they were seven. They specifically looked at the blood’s epigenetic data, which are the molecular processes that affect how genes behave.

Methylation, or epigenetic changes, on the NR3C1 gene at age seven was seen in babies who had been exposed to neutral or awkward behavior at 12 months, according to the researchers. The body’s stress response, including the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that initiates the “fight or flight” response, is linked to this gene.

The findings, according to the researchers, suggest that even insignificant early social or emotional influences may shape functions related to epigenetics.

However, the authors of the study point out that it is difficult to determine the long-term effects and that the slight differences found in this study may be indicative of normal human variation. Between the ages of one and seven, the children in the study may have been exposed to a variety of environments and interactions that may have affected NR3C1 methylation.

Furthermore, methylation changes may develop over time as a result of overall parental behavior rather than a single developmental stage.

Even though infancy is thought to be a sensitive time for development, the authors of the study say that more research is needed to find out how the social–emotional environment affects NR3C1 methylation and whether methylation changes in infancy last into childhood.

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