News Release 

Stress in small children separated from their parents may alter genes

SAGE

Experts in the emotional needs of small children say increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in babies and small children who are separated from their parents, especially their mothers, could have a long-term genetic impact on future generations. In a commentary published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the authors say that several studies show that small children cared for outside the home, especially in poor quality care and for 30 or more hours per week, have higher levels of cortisol than children at home.

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?, who wrote the paper with two colleagues, said: "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."

The authors say that raised cortisol levels are a sign of stress and that the time children spend with their parents is biologically more important than is often realised. Stress has been associated with children, particularly boys, acting aggressively. Not all children are affected, but an important minority are. Raised cortisol levels are associated with reduced antibody levels and changes in those parts of the brain which are associated with emotional stability.

"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.

Sir Denis added: "Future research should explore the links between the care of small children in different settings, their cortisol levels, DNA, and behaviour."

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Notes to editors

Childcare outside the family for the under-threes: cause for concern? (DOI: 10.1177/0141076820903494) will be published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine at 00:05 hrs (UK time) on Friday 14 February 2020.

The link for the full text version of the paper when published will be:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0141076820903494

For further information or a copy of the paper please contact:

Rosalind Dewar
Media Office, Royal Society of Medicine
DL: +44 (0) 1580 764713
M: +44 (0) 7785 182732
E: media@rsm.ac.uk

The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) is a leading voice in the UK and internationally for medicine and healthcare. Published continuously since 1809, JRSM features scholarly comment and clinical research. JRSM is editorially independent from the Royal Society of Medicine, and its editor is Dr Kamran Abbasi.

JRSM is a journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and it is published by SAGE Publishing.

Sara Miller McCune founded SAGE Publishing in 1965 to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community. SAGE is a leading international provider of innovative, high-quality content publishing more than 1000 journals and over 800 new books each year, spanning a wide range of subject areas. A growing selection of library products includes archives, data, case studies and video. SAGE remains majority owned by our founder and after her lifetime will become owned by a charitable trust that secures the company's continued independence. Principal offices are located in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC and Melbourne. http://www.sagepublishing.com

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