Babies and children benefit from healthy touch, including massage therapy, and touch is one type of positive attention they can receive from parents. New research indicates babies who receive lots of good attention grow up to be better-adjusted adults.

The benefits of infant massage have been documented in many research studies, and include weight gain, accelerated visual development and reduced stress behaviors. Additionally, massage for children has been shown to reduce anxiety, pain, headache and the severity of autism.

The new research shows plentiful maternal affection in early infancy boosts adult coping skill, and that a mother’s affection at 8 months predicts emotional distress in adulthood.

The researchers based their findings on 482 people who were part of the U.S. Providence Rhode Island birth cohort of the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, according to a press release from the British Medical Journal, where the research ran.

The quality of babies’ interactions with their mothers at the age of 8 months was objectively rated by a psychologist during routine developmental assessment, the press release noted. At the end of each session, the psychologist completed an assessment of how well the mother had coped with her child’s developmental tests and how she had responded to the child’s performance.

The amount of affection and attention she gave to her child was also categorized, with descriptors ranging from “negative” to “extravagant.”

When the subjects reached an average age of 34, their mental health was assessed, using a validated symptom checklist, which captures both specific elements, such as anxiety and hostility, and general levels of distress.

“When the specific elements of the checklist were analyzed, those whose mothers had been observed to be the most affectionate at the 8-month assessment had the lowest levels of anxiety, hostility, and general distress,” the research’s author noted.

The authors conclude that their findings back up the assertion that even very early life experiences can influence adult health.

“High levels of maternal affection are likely to facilitate secure attachments and bonding,” say the authors. “This not only lowers distress, but may also enable a child to develop effective life, social and coping skills, which will stand them in good stead as adults.”

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