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Stress in Young Kids Separated From Parents May Alter Genes

Research has shown that babies and toddlers who are separated from their parents for long periods of the day, particularly those in poor quality care and for 30 hours or more per week, have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to children who stay at home.

In a new paper, researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K. say that increased levels of cortisol in very young children who are separated from their parents, especially their mothers, may have a long-term genetic impact on future generations.

The paper is published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

“Cortisol release is a normal response to stress in mammals facing an emergency and is usually useful. However, sustained cortisol release over hours or days can be harmful,” said study author Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray, emeritus professor of general practice at the University of Exeter, and president of the children’s charity What About the Children?

Mothers of children under three years of age increasingly go out to work. In England, 75% of women with dependent children work (Office of National Statistics, 2019), while their very young children are often placed in daycare with caregivers unknown to the child, say the authors.

They add that increased cortisol levels are a sign of stress and that the time children spend with their parents is biologically more important than is often realized. Stress has been associated with children, particularly boys, acting aggressively. Not all children are affected, but an important minority are.

Raised cortisol levels are linked to reduced antibody levels and changes in those parts of the brain which are associated with emotional stability. In fact, long-term research has linked small children attending nurseries with subsequent physical and mental health problems in adolescence and adult life.

“Environmental factors interact with genes, so that genes can be altered, and once altered by adverse childhood experiences, can pass to future generations. Such epigenetic effects need urgent study,” say the authors.

“Future research should explore the links between the care of small children in different settings, their cortisol levels, DNA, and behavior,” said Pereira Gray.

Source: SAGE


Stress in Young Kids Separated From Parents May Alter Genes

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Stress in Young Kids Separated From Parents May Alter Genes. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Feb 2020 (Originally: 18 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Feb 2020
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