First-time mom Charline Gipson was put under video surveillance as she smiled and sang to her 5-month-old baby, Quinn. When Gipson was told to have no facial or emotional interaction with Quinn, he squirmed and looked around.
Tulane University child psychiatrist and geneticist Dr. Stacy Drury watched Gipson's behavior and Quinn's reactions from another room, trying to determine if bonding early in life can protect the child's physical health throughout life.
Director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University, Drury found that children exposed to trauma and stress not only have brain and behavior changes, but shorter lives. She and Dr. Katherine Theall, a Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist, led a study ("The Association of Telomere Length With Family Violence and Disruption") that was published last month in the American Association of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics. Now Drury is examining how the mother-baby bond could protect against future disease and toxic stress. Local mothers-to-be could qualify for the study.
"Could moms sort of be a biological bubble wrap that ... protects kids from those exposures that we can't necessarily stop?" Drury asks, referring to home and community violence and the stress from hurricanes.
Doctors know stress during pregnancy can harm a developing baby throughout its life and should be avoided. But could early bonding change the course of a person's physical health? And can doctors see it reflected in our genetics, making our cells live longer and age more slowly?
Gipson says these study questions are changing her approach to stress. As an attorney, Gipson had high-pressure deadlines while pregnant. This study is teaching her the importance of reducing stress in each family member's life.
"It makes me more mindful," says Gipson, who is one of 150 women enrolled in the study. "It actually makes me think about how I can plan ahead to alleviate some of the stressful triggers."
"My schedule's definitely changed, more helping out with feeding, changing diapers, just being a team player," says Rick Gipson, Quinn's father. Tulane University seeks 500 pregnant women to join the study (www.tulane.edu/som/bangl/current-studies.cfm). Participants meet with a doctor three times and possibly two more times when the baby is older. To sign up, call (504) 656-6449 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for Meg Farris' Medical Watch reports weeknights on WWL-TV Channel 4 and anytime on wwltv.com.