Never underestimate the power of a loving hug. Researchers say physical contact can shape a baby’s DNA. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Our babies are who they are at conception, the minute the sperm and egg unite.

At the molecular level, that growing person is made up of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of chromosomes, which contain DNA.

A science website about genetics defines DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, as “a long molecule that contains our unique genetic code. Like a recipe book, it holds the instructions for making all the proteins in our bodies.”

Simple enough, right?

DNA is a molecule with two strands. You’ve probably seen those computerized images of DNA, instantly recognizable as the slightly twisted, double helix shape. The pairs are joined by hydrogen bonds.

A human’s complete set of genes, known as the genome, is made up of 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA. This genetic information determines physical characteristics, right down to the color of the hair and eyes, height, ear size and eye shape.

It also determines if the baby is a boy or girl and what blood type baby will have.

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46 chromosomes. (That’s 23 from mom, 23 from dad.)

This is all very cool, although you may be wondering what the point is.

Did you know that during delivery, a baby’s cells can cross the placenta and enter mom’s body? The cells essentially become part of mom!

It’s called microchimerism. The New York Times had an interesting story on it, as did Science News.

The Science News story explained it quite well: “Way back when you and your mom shared a body, your cells mingled. Her cells slipped into your body and your cells circled back into her. This process, called fetal-maternal microchimerism, turns both mother and child into chimeras harboring little pieces of each other.”

This information is new and interesting to me.

Another thing I learned: The presence of fetal cells in the mother’s blood helps explain why parents are better donors for their own children, if that ever becomes necessary.

Lee Nelson, MD, of the University of Washington, has been studying this topic for more than 20 years.

“(Fetal cells) can go to the liver and become liver cells, or go into the heart and become muscle cells,” Dr. Nelson stated in an interview with NPR. “Fetal cells can even cross the blood-brain barrier and turn into neurons.”

Researchers continue to make new discoveries in this area, so only time will tell us more.

But did you know that you can affect your baby’s DNA? How cool is that?

I’ve often talked about the importance of skin-to-skin contact for both mom and dad.

Researchers in Canada looked much deeper into how physical contact can have a profound effect on newborns. According to The University of British Columbia, which participated in the research, the amount of touch a new baby experiences will affect them all the way to the molecular level—right down to the DNA.

The study involved 94 children over a span of four years. When the infants reached 5 weeks old, the parents were asked to begin journaling the amount of touching, holding and physical care they provided to their child. They also recorded when baby was sleeping, awake, crying or feeding.

Once the children reached age 4 1/2, researchers took DNA swabs of their cheeks. (The article discusses “DNA methylation” and other fascinating angles, but it’s a lot of science that I won’t get into here.)

In children who experienced low contact or distress, researchers found that the cells were less developed than they should have been in children their age.

Other studies have found similar results in related areas, such as higher cortisol levels found in children from orphanages and anti-social behavior in children who experienced less contact.

What does this all mean to you, parents or parents-to-be?

Don’t feel guilty for holding and touching your new baby.

Realize you are helping to shape them in more ways than one—right down to the DNA.