OBJECTIVES: We sought to determine if variations in maternal care alter DNA methylation in term, healthy, 5-month-old infants. This work was based on landmark studies in animal models demonstrating that nurturing care by dams would alter their newborns’ stress responses through epigenetic mechanisms. We used breastfeeding as a proxy for animal maternal behavior. We hypothesized alterations in DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene and less hypothalamic stress response in infants of mothers who breastfed their infants versus infants of mothers who did not breastfeed.
METHODS: A cohort study of term, healthy infants and their mothers who did (n = 21) or did not (n = 21) breastfeed for the first 5 months was used in this analysis. Cortisol stress reactivity was measured in infant saliva by using a mother-infant interaction procedure and DNA methylation of an important regulatory region of the glucocorticoid receptor gene. Changes in DNA methylation of this gene in humans were compared to homologous regions of the rat gene. DNA samples were prepared from cheek swabs and subjected to quantitative analysis of the extent of methylation by using sensitive sequencing techniques.
RESULTS: Breastfeeding was associated with decreased DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor promoter and decreased cortisol reactivity in 5-month-old infants. Decreased DNA methylation occurred in the promoter region involved in regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and immune system responses.
CONCLUSIONS: Maternal care in humans may impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress response through behavioral programming and manifest as offspring epigenetic change. These results explain, in part, some of the positive effects observed in children who are breastfed.