Mothers: you can't cuddle your babies too much.
New research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests the more affectionate mothers are with infants, the less likely their children will struggle with anxiety and other mental health issues as adults.
The study, completed by a team of researchers at Duke University in Durham, N.C., initially examined 482 people when they were eight months old.
During a series of developmental tests, psychologists observed how warm and affectionate mothers were with their babies and assigned each a rating on a five-point scale based on their interactions. Most mothers were rated as expressing "warm" affection towards their babies (84.9 per cent) while 8.9 per cent were "occasionally negative" and 1.5 per cent were rated as "extravagant" in the warmth they heaped on their little one.
Decades later, when the offspring were adults (average age of 34), they participated in a battery of mental health tests to determine how emotionally distressed they were.
Across the board, those who had been showered with the most amount of affection in infancy (rated "extravagant" or "caressing") had the lowest levels of distress as adults.
The average rating for anxiety among the general population is 50 points. Children who received high levels of affection from their mothers had scores about three points below average (which means they had less anxiety) and those who received "negative" affection from their mothers registered four points above average (which meant they had more anxiety).
The children whose mothers expressed above-average affection also had lower rates of interpersonal sensitivity, hostility and somatization (the process by which psychological distress is expressed as physical symptoms).
"From the policy perspective, it definitely adds to that body of research that we should be able to protect time for mothers and fathers to be affectionate to kids," said Joanna Maselko, the lead author of the study and social epidemiologist with the Duke Medical School's psychiatry department.
Parental leaves and high-quality child care are critical for a child's social development, Dr. Maselko points out.
The takeaway for mothers, she says, is that they should follow "the more the better" rule when doting on their infant children.
While some recent discourse has questioned whether parents who display too much warmth towards their kids may be doing more harm than good, Dr. Maselko says her research suggests that "maybe you can't be too affectionate."