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Mom's Touch Eases Childhood Stress
by Jamie Hall, Edmonton Journal

More than just comfort, a mother's touch can actually trigger genes that shape the way a child will respond to stress later in life, suggests a leader in the field of child health research.

McGill University professor Michael Meaney deals with the impact maternal care has on the mental and physical well-being of children.

He has been named the winner of the inaugural Lougheed Prize from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, in fetal and early childhood development.

A Canadian researcher says the comfort of a mother's touch can shape the way a child copes later in life.

Meaney contends there are genes in specific regions of the brain whose activity influences the way the body responds to stress, beginning early in life.

"The level of activity of those genes is actually determined by the environment in early life, by a mother's care," says Meaney.

The most definitive and in-depth research involves animals thus far, specifically rodents.

Meaney says female rats lick their pups as a primary form of tactile stimulation. Some rats lick their pups a lot, some far less so.

The rats who received more of their mother's attention were calmer and less fearful, said Meaney.

"And even when they had a stress response, it was quite modest."

The latter group was more nervous and more cautious.

As it turned out, the mothers who were "low lickers" were themselves fearful and cautious.

"Really, in some sense, they were preparing their offspring for an environment that was more stressful, so there is a reason for it," said Meaney.

The same principle is thought to be true for humans, where the equivalent behaviour would be considered holding, snuggling or cuddling a baby.

Environments that are substantially more stressful for parents, such as poverty, create parents who themselves are more anxious and fearful; thus, so are their children.

"But, again, there's a reason for it; in an impoverished environment, especially one that has a lot of crime and a lot of violence, you're better off being a little nervous," said Meaney.

In fact, in that context the research suggests boys are more likely to succeed if they exhibit behavioural inhibition, or fearfulness.

"The more fearful and anxious boys don't get into criminal activity, are more responsive to their parents and stay the course more successfully," said Meaney.

"So, really, if we want to create healthier children, we need to create healthier environments."

Meaney will be in Calgary on Wednesday to receive his award from former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.
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