Skin-to-skin contact is 
                 IN OUR DNA

 Our DNA, our genes, are adapted to this PLACE, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).

DNA has been called the key to life. Simply put, along the strandsof the DNA  there are stretches that can produce proteins, and we call these genes. Some years ago we discovered that we have only some 24000 genes in our DNA … which seems much too little to explain the complexity of our brains and bodies. More recently we have discovered “epigenes”. For every gene, these work like dials and switches and adjustors, that can turn the gene off or on, or modify the protein. There are many epigenes for every gene, which does allow for the amazing complexity of life. The epigene/gene interaction is determined by the environment … the PLACE. It may be direct chemical or physical signals that make this, or indirect signals and hormones from sensations received from the environment. In this way the gene makes a protein best suited to the environment in which it finds itself. Once set, that is how the gene continues for life. So it is the first time the gene is activated in development that determines how it is going to work in the future.

This has been called “Predictive Adaptive Responses”  (Fetal Matrix, Gluckman and Hansen) … the gene makes a prediction about the world in which it lives, according to its first best guess, and adapts the proteins it makes and the body that results accordingly. The better the prediction, the better the adaptation the body has to the environment. But conversely, if the earliest environment is very different to the later actual one, then the body may be maladapted.  This maladaptation was first described by David Barker, who observed that babies born  with small placentas were more likely to die earlier from heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The small placenta can be seen as evidence of a “harsh environment” in the uterus, there might have been low sugar or high stress or some other factor working. The genes response was to adapt in expectation of a “harsh environment” in its future world … it needs a high blood pressure to stay alert and alive in danger,  of calories are scarce, it needs to feast when it can, and store extra fat. These are good survival adaptations for tough times. However, when times are NOT tough, the blood pressure shortens life by hastening heart disease, and the fat stores are quickly overloaded because there is only  feast and no famine (as expected, prediction wrong), and so obesity and diabetes results.

There is no research (to my knowledge) on epigenes at the time of human birth. But we know from mammalian research that the birth is the CRITICAL PERIOD above all others. At the moment of birth, the lungs start working for the first time. The skin meets air for the first time. The immune system meets bacteria for the first time. And clearly there are genes at work, and their epigenes. The birth environment matters. Probably it matters quite specifically for the particular neural pathways and organ functions that are in development at that specific time. Some genes are fixed in the uterine environment before birth, others will still wait to come forward later in life. But essential ones operate at birth.

More on this later, but my point here is that for the human newborn, mothers body is the environment that speaks to the epigenes. It is mothers chemical and physical signals that determine which epigene turns on, It is maternal sensations and mother’s milk that are the earliest triggers for hormones and neurotransmitters to work. Mother provides an overriding sense of safety, and this sense pervades every single gene and epigene.
SKIN-TO-SKIN CONTACT is the PLACE where the DNA makes the best Predictive Adaptive Responses.

The gene is absolutely determined to survive, and can do so without mother. But without her sensory inputs, the epigenes start a series of adaptations, which profoundly change development.

 

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