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New study confirms it: Nurturing moms may help boost their child's brain development

New study confirms it: Nurturing moms may help boost their child's brain development

Austin Photo Set: News_Jennifer_nurturing children_feb 2012_mother and children
The author and her twin fourteen month old boys. Courtesy of Jennifer Walden

It should come as no surprise that a new study has found young children with loving, nurturing moms tend to develop a larger hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning, memory and stress response, by the time they reach school age. As a physician, and a mother of twin 14-month-old boys who are bestowed tons of hugs by their loved ones, I was pleased to read about these findings.

"It is to our knowledge the first study that links early maternal nurturance to the structural development of a key brain region," said study author Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "It provides very powerful evidence of the importance of early nurturing for healthy brain development and has tremendous public health implications."

 "It provides very powerful evidence of the importance of early nurturing for healthy brain development and has tremendous public health implications." 

The study was published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Decades of research have shown the importance of a nurturing caregiver — whether it's mom, dad, grandparent, nanny or foster parents — on a child's emotional and behavioral development, according to Luby. Animal studies have also shown a connection between physical attributes of the brain and nurturing mothers.

In the study, researchers conducted an experiment in which children aged three to six were put into a frustrating situation. The children and their mothers were left in a room with a brightly wrapped package; the children were told they could open the gift, but they had to wait while the mom filled out a series of forms. 

Researchers observed how the kids and their parents handled this situation, which was meant to replicate the typical stressors of daily parenting — that is, mom is trying to get something done, with the child needing to control their impulses despite being faced with something they want right at that moment. (I was in this situation just the other day at my son's doctor, and this study reminded me to stay cool!)

Mothers who offered reassurance and support that helped their child regulate their emotions and control their impulses were rated as "nurturing,"  while mothers who either ignored or harshly scolded their child were rated otherwise. When the children reached the age of 7-10 years old, researchers did MRI brain scans of 92 participants from the earlier experiment. Kids with "nurturing" moms had a hippocampus that was 10 percent larger than those in the other, less highly rated group.

"This gives us very concrete, physical evidence by showing this key region of the brain is healthier and more well-developed in children who receive this rich nurturance," said Luby.  In the study, researchers excluded children who had depression or other psychiatric disorders that could influence the size of the hippocampus.  

Robert Myers, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, said the study is a "confirmation of facts related to brain development and plasticity that have been known since the late 1990s." Myers also added, "This study shows that aspects of the early psycho-social environment can impact structural aspects of the brain."

Indeed, there are many stressors in this day and age that make it impossible to be an always-perfect parent. Financial stress, time pressures, work schedules and the demands of single parenting all make things difficult, Myers said. But scheduling quality fun time with your children (even if it's 15 or 20 minutes a day) keeps the bonds of nurturing strong.  

It should also be noted that mothers shouldn't be too hard on themselves; occasionally losing patience and snapping at your children won't cause their hippocampus to automatically shrink. Brains develop over years and years, so it's the overall quality of the parent-child relationship that matters, which is the greatest find of this fascinating long-term study.