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Study of Romanian orphans show importance of touch

October 28, 1997

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The silence overwhelmed Mary Carlson when she visited row upon row of swaddled babies in a Romanian orphanage. No babbling, no crying, not even a whimper.

``The children are just lying there. You don’t hear crying, even in a room full of infants,″ Carlson said.

The orphanages are terribly overcrowded and understaffed, leaving little chance for the attention babies need. Not even mealtime offers a chance to cuddle: bottles are propped in the cribs.

Carlson, a researcher from Harvard Medical School, presented a study Monday that found such babies had abnormal levels at age 2 of cortisol, a stress hormone that can be collected simply by swabbing saliva.

``I think it helped make people more aware of the importance of touch for babies,″ she said in an interview before her presentation at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

The work ``allows a very unique window at the cutting edge″ of how biology, experience and behavior combine to affect child development, said Douglas Granger, a researcher at Penn State.

``This study is really fantastic because it uses a natural experiment _ something we would never study in an experimental focus in humans,″ he said.

Western psychologists have long considered touch and attention crucial for babies and children. But medical workers at the orphanage in Iasi (pronounced ``yahsh″) were not trained in social development, Ms. Carlson said. The lack of training reflected the legacy of the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s elimination of the study of ``soft″ sciences such as psychology.

The Iasi study looked at 30 swaddled children, 30 from a 13-month enrichment program, and 30 who were raised at home. The orphanage children were stunted, acted about half their age, and had abnormal levels of cortisol, low when they awoke and peaking later than normal at noon.

The orphanage’s chief pediatrician, Dr. Cristiana Dragomir, worked with Ms. Carlson on the research. ``I sent her slides of the results, and she goes around and gives talks to other pediatricians,″ Ms. Carlson said.

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