What do babies inherit from each parent?

Babies inherit a mix of genetic traits from both their mother and father. Some traits are passed down directly from one parent, while others involve a combination of genes from both parents. The traits babies inherit influence many aspects of health and development.

Physical Appearance

Many physical traits are polygenic, meaning they are influenced by multiple genes from both parents. Babies may inherit the eye color, hair color, skin tone, height, and overall build as a blend of the parents’ features. However, some physical characteristics are determined by single genes that can be passed down directly from one parent. For example, widow’s peak hairlines tend to be inherited from a dominant gene from one parent. Cleft chin and detached earlobes are other examples of physical features passed from a single gene.

Blood Type

Blood type is determined by two alleles, or forms of a gene, one inherited from each parent. The ABO blood groups are controlled by genes A, B, and O. Depending on the combination of A, B, and O alleles a child inherits, their blood type will be A, B, AB, or O. The Rh factor blood type is also inherited from parents. If both parents have Rh+ blood, the baby will be Rh+. If one parent has Rh- blood, the baby has a 50/50 chance of being Rh+ or Rh-.

Diseases and Disorders

Unfortunately, babies can also inherit a higher risk for certain diseases and disorders from their parents. These conditions may be caused by single-gene mutations or complex interactions of multiple genes. Some examples include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder – increased risk if inherited from one or both parents
  • Asthma – greater chance if one or both parents have asthma
  • Color blindness – passed down through mother’s genes or father’s genes
  • Cystic fibrosis – must inherit one faulty gene from each parent
  • Sickle cell anemia – must inherit two sickle cell genes, one from each parent
  • Hemophilia – recessive gene on X chromosome inherited from mother
  • Tay-Sachs disease – both parents must be carriers

Allergies and Intolerances

Babies can inherit tendencies for certain allergies and intolerances from their parents. Having one or more close family members with allergies greatly increases a baby’s risk of developing allergies to things like foods, pollen, pets, and dust mites. Common inheritable intolerances include:

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Gluten intolerance or celiac disease
  • Nut allergies

Congenital Heart Defects

Approximately 1% of babies are born with a congenital heart defect. These can occur if the baby inherits genes that interfere with normal heart development, although sometimes the cause is unknown. Examples of congenital heart defects that can be inherited genetically include:

  • Atrial septal defect (hole in the wall between the atria)
  • Ventricular septal defect (hole in the wall between the ventricles)
  • Tetralogy of Fallot (four related heart defects)
  • Patent ductus arteriosus (failure of a fetal blood vessel to properly close)

Mental Health and Personality

Research shows mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, and schizophrenia have a hereditary component. However, personalities and temperament are also shaped by environment, experiences, and upbringing. Some patterns such as introversion or optimism also appear to run in families.


Intelligence is influenced by both nature and nurture. Studies on identical twins reared apart show intelligence is partly inheritable genetically. However, environmental factors also play a key role. Education and enrichment opportunities can allow children to fully develop their cognitive potential regardless of their biological parents’ intelligence levels.

Digestive System

Digestive traits like speed of metabolism, gut bacteria, and tendencies for digestive issues can be inherited from parents. For example, babies born via c-section do not receive beneficial bacteria from the mother’s birth canal. This may place them at higher risk for developing certain digestive problems later if parents also have inadequate gut flora.


Left-handedness is believed to be genetic and runs in families. If both parents are left-handed, studies show their children have a 26% chance of also being left-handed compared to just a 2% rate for children of right-handed parents. However, with only one left-handed parent, the rate is still almost double the general population at 11%.


Babies inherit several aspects of vision from their parents, including:

  • Eye color – blending of genes from both parents
  • Eye shape – epicanthic folds inherited as a dominant trait
  • Myopia (nearsightedness) – increased risk if one or both parents are nearsighted
  • Astigmatism – often inherited but can also be caused by the birth process


Babies can be born with hearing impairments or predispositions for issues like ear infections and hearing loss due to genetic factors inherited from parents, such as:

  • Connexin 26 gene mutations – most common cause of inherited hearing loss
  • Waardenburg syndrome – changes in pigmentation and hearing due to gene mutations
  • Pendred syndrome – congenital hearing loss stemming from thyroid gland abnormalities

However, environmental factors like maternal infections during pregnancy can also affect an infant’s hearing.

Muscle Composition

The composition of muscle fibers – slow twitch vs fast twitch – is genetically determined and influences athletic ability and coordination. Fast twitch muscles contract more powerfully and are good for sprints and bursts of activity. Slow twitch muscles have greater endurance and aerobic capacity. Parents pass down their unique muscle fiber makeups to their children.

Bone Density

Parents’ bone densities and risks for conditions like osteoporosis can correlate with their children’s bone health. However, adequate nutrition and weight-bearing exercise throughout childhood also affect peak bone density and future bone health significantly.

Dental Development

Tooth and jaw structure are strongly influenced by genetics and account for common hereditary dental problems like:

  • Crowding – insufficient space for teeth
  • Underbites or overbites – protruding upper or lower jaw
  • Cleft lip/palate – opening in lip or roof of mouth
  • Baby or extra teeth – hyperdontia
  • Congenitally missing teeth – hypodontia

However, proper dental hygiene and access to orthodontics can treat many inherited dental flaws.

Skin, Hair and Nails

Newborns inherit the characteristics of their parents’ skin, hair, and nails, leading to similarities in qualities like:

  • Complexion – fair, olive, dark
  • Acne and eczema tendencies
  • Skin dryness or oiliness
  • Freckling and mole patterns
  • Hair color and texture
  • Nail shape and growth rate

Genetics are responsible for most inherited skin, hair and nail traits. However, sun exposure, nutrition, and skin/hair care habits also affect a baby’s skin, hair and nail health.

Immune System

The innate immune response babies are born with is passed down genetically. Immune system health influences:

  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Inflammatory responses
  • Development of autoimmune disorders
  • Response to vaccines

Parents also pass their antibodies on to babies before birth via the placenta and breast milk after birth. This transfers immune protection against pathogens the mother has encountered.

Gender and Reproductive Organs

Gender is determined at conception by the father’s sperm cell carrying either an X or Y chromosome. XX results in a female while XY results in a male. Genetic and hormonal irregularities can sometimes lead to atypical reproductive organ development, but this is rare.


Babies inherit innate reflexes and instincts needed for survival and development. Primitive reflexes normally present at birth include:

  • Sucking reflex
  • Grasp reflex
  • Moro reflex – splaying of limbs when startled
  • Rooting reflex – turning toward touch around the mouth

These reflexes are genetically imprinted into the infant nervous system and fade at appropriate stages as the baby’s brain matures.

Risk of Childhood Cancers

While not common, babies can sometimes inherit genetic mutations or deficiencies that increase susceptibility to certain pediatric cancers and tumors like:

  • Retinoblastoma – eye cancer
  • Wilms tumor – kidney cancer
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome – various tissue cancers
  • Down syndrome – 10-20x increased childhood leukemia risk

Thankfully, inherited childhood cancer predispositions are rare, accounting for less than 10% of cases. But family history can indicate higher risk.

Taste Preferences

Human taste perception involves genes controlling taste bud receptors and signaling compounds. Children tend to inherit taste preferences and sensitivities similar to their parents, especially for bitter and sweet flavors. This explains some common family food quirks.

Behavioral Traits

Babies can inherit certain behavioral tendencies like temperament, activity levels, adaptability to routines, and mood regulation. But parenting, experiences, and environment shape behavior substantially, especially as children grow. Both nature and nurture combine to produce each child’s unique personality.

Risk of Birth Defects

Most birth defects do not have a clear genetic link. However, babies may have increased risks for certain congenital disabilities if parents’ families have a history of:

  • Neural tube defects like spina bifida
  • Congenital heart problems
  • Cleft lip/palate
  • Down syndrome – advanced parental age increases risk
  • Skeletal problems like clubfoot or hip dysplasia

But many birth defects remain unexplained and can still happen randomly in low-risk pregnancies.


Metabolic rates and tendencies for disorders like obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol often run in families. The complex interplay between genetics and childhood lifestyle determines babies’ future metabolic health. However, healthy habits can reduce disease risks regardless of genetic predispositions.


In summary, babies inherit a fascinating array of physical and health characteristics from their parents’ genes. Many factors involve blended contributions from both parents, while some are passed down directly from just the mother or father. Environment, experiences, and pediatric care after birth also shape children tremendously as they develop. With both nature and nurture working together, babies grow into their own unique individuals regardless of the various traits initially inherited at conception.

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