Scientists at the NIH recently studied the behavior of a gene that influences how much baby monkeys cry when away from their mothers. It seems that when baby monkeys hang around (literally) with their mothers they release opioids which make them feel good. When mom isn’t around, the opioids disappear and baby becomes unhappy. And it’s variations in the “mu-opioid gene” that determine just how hooked babies become. Researchers looked at 97 macaque monkeys and found that those with one particular mu-opioid variant are particularly sensitive to being away from mamma’s lovin’ arms.
Sound familiar? Those of us with more than one child know that no two babies are quite alike. And this is particularly true when it comes to fussy behavior. While I have always contended that acid reflux disease and milk protein allergy are wildly underestimated in babies, there’s a group of babies with neither of these conditions that cry for no apparent reason. This study gets us a little closer to understanding the neurologic differences that may explain what’s been observed for centuries.
Perhaps this is all inconsequential but who knows where it’ll lead. While I don’t think we’ll ever see the day when we consider gene therapy for the high need baby, it’s encouraging to learn that when babies cry, it’s often for reasons other than “poor maternal adjustment.”