Spent much time thinking about yourself as a baby lately? Chances are the answer is no; many of us have few memories of our babyhood, and it only really surfaces when your parents decide to embarrass you with the photograph of you dressed as a clown when you were 18 months old. The reality, though, is that our infancy, from gestation to the period before we become a toddler, is coming into focus as a crucial time in the functioning of our health over our lifetime, from our immune system to the development of allergies and whether we attend school regularly. The "most important years of your life," according to this theory, aren't at high school; they're when you can barely talk and definitely don't know how to go to the toilet without assistance. Glamorous.
A lot of different things seem to create potential links to adult behavior and health, from diet to the parenting choices of parents of premature babies to the play sessions you had. Babies are vulnerable in more ways than one; but they're also taking in lessons about the world around them at a truly rapid rate, as you'll know if you've ever sworn around a small child.
It may seem high-stakes, but it's also intriguing to look back at your own babyhood and see what's still influencing you, decades later.
The More Complex Music You Heard, The Better Your Cognitive Skills Might Be
If you regard the whole "Baby Mozart" phenomenon with scepticism, you're not alone; but new research out of the University of Washington indicates that, if you were exposed to a lot of music when you were an infant as a play activity, you learned certain skills faster. The experiment itself was pretty cool: the researchers divided nine month- old babies into two groups, one of which did a musical play group with their parents, with the other playing with toy cars and other non-musical toys. (Note that the parents were around for both: it's not known if any benefit comes from just sticking kids in rooms with CDs).
The babies who listened to music (waltzes, oddly enough, which are a bit tricky to learn) were found to be more capable of detecting disruptions in music and speech patterns when they came back for assessment within seven days. The scientists think that, if you were exposed to a bit of complex music in play as a baby, you likely learned how to recognize auditory patterns faster, which may have accelerated your development of speech and made you a chatterbox. Making you a genius: no. Making you capable of detecting patterns early: yes.
If Your Mother Was Stressed It Could Still Be Affecting You (And Not Just Psychologically)
The science of the microbes in our guts is influencing a lot of new studies, but one of the more intriguing discoveries is how microbes in the gut of an expectant mother might react to stress and pass those impacts on to a gestating infant. A study just released by Ohio State University found that stressed-out female mice showed significant shifts in the microbes in their guts, and that they passed down those shifts to their female offspring. And, intriguingly, the impacts of those microbial shifts seemed to significantly influence the behavior of the offspring as they grew into adulthood.
If this applies to humans, it means that on a biological level stress can be "passed" to infants in the prenatal stage. And the mice who'd been born to stressed mothers, the scientists noted, suffered: "These mice were more anxious, they spent more time in dark, closed spaces and they had a harder time learning cognitive tasks even though they were never stressed after birth." In humans, this might mean that women who had a stressful pregnancy or encountered trauma during their gestating months could be more likely to have children with behavioral issues or psychological problems, purely because of microbial transfer. It's all a bit odd. Who knew the gut could be responsible for so much trouble?
Exposure To Potential Foods Could Have Reduced Your Risk Of Allergies
Got any allergies? We're increasingly discovering that the food we get as babies can be seriously influential for the allergies we develop as children and carry into adulthood, which is frustrating if you've ended up with a serious aversion to something delicious. Unfortunately, thought, the effects don't extend to all potential allergens.
The scientists behind a meta-analysis released in September looked at 146 different studies of over 200,000 children, and found that feeding young infants eggs and peanut butter after four months may reduce their risk of developing allergies to those things; but the effects tailed off, at six months of age for eggs and 11 months for peanut butter. There's a sweet spot, it seems, but it's a very cautious one: The scientists said there was no evidence that this worked for other allergens, and heavily advised against it if infants had any other condition, particularly an allergy to anything else. No use taking the risk.
"Kangaroo Care" Helped You Flourish If You Were A Premie
The phenomenon of "kangaroo care" is kind of what it sounds like: caring for infants in the same manner as kangaroos, except without the inbuilt pouch. It's been largely recommended for premature infants, and involves immediate, continuous body-to-body contact and breastfeeding. And a 20-year study of kids raised on kangaroo care as infants after being born prematurely in Colombia found that there were huge benefits to the approach that showed up in the kids as they entered adulthood and beyond.
The study found a host of benefits for the adult behavior of the kangaroo kids. Compared to adults who'd been born prematurely and given traditional incubator care, they had lower rates of school absenteeism, bigger brains, more stable families, lower rates of hyperactivity and aggressiveness, hourly wages that were 53 percent higher, and a slightly higher IQ. Clearly it was a very, very good idea, and shows the importance of skin-on-skin contact and constant monitoring when it comes to the health and flourishing of premature babies.
Your Mother's Milk Created Your Immune System
We already know that being breastfed has a considerable effect on the immune systems of newborns and babies, but a new study from October this year has found that the immune system cells of mothers also have an educational role when they're transmitted to babies via breastmilk: they pass into the infant's body and start to "teach" its immune cells to fight off threats. The study, which was based on mice, discovered that it's not just about antibodies, the traditional method through which breastmilk is supposed to protect babies. It's also about immune cells, which carry "lessons" about the many infections to which the mother has been exposed throughout their lives, and can pass through the wall of the baby's intestine and give instruction to its new immune system.
The scientists behind the study think it might be a massive help for vaccinating babies, some of whom don't show good results if vaccinated directly. The passage of the immune cells means you can hypothetically vaccinate the mother and end up vaccinating the baby via the transfer of breastmilk, which is pretty amazing. The diseases that your mother had through her life, if she breastfed you, had a definite impact on the formation of your own innate protections.
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