The Role of Nurturing Moms in Brain Development
A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports to have found clear evidence of the link between nurturing mothers and increased brain structures in children. Authors from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis claim that nurturing mothers are
“directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation.”
The study looked at 92 children between the ages of 3 and 6 and placed them in a frustrating situation – wait for Mom to fill out a form in a room full of wrapped presents, but you have to wait until Mom completes the tedious paperwork before you can open a gift. The mothers were then observed in their reactions to their children’s growing frustrations. Those mothers who were engaged, offered reassurance, and helped their children work through their emotions were labeled as nurturing. Those mothers who reprimanded their children for their impatience or ignored their growing pleas were rated lower in nurturing qualities.
These same children were then observed at the ages of 7 to 10 years and their brain scans showed on average a 10% increase in the size of the hippocampus of each child with a nurturing mother. This area of the brain is responsible for such keys areas as learning, memory, and responses to stressful situations. It is the first study of its kind to show an actual anatomical change in the brain that could be linked to the nurturing qualities of mothers. The researchers linked to this study are even claiming that the findings have significant public health implications. Interestingly, previous studies with animals have had the same results.
What is a nurturing mother?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a list of what they feel are qualities that are needed in order for parents to be nurturing. This list includes such things as:
- Make sure your children always know they are loved, even when they do something wrong. (I think especially when they do something wrong is important.)
- Encourage your children.
- Spend time with your children.
- Learn positive, nonphysical forms of discipline.
- Communicate with your children’s teachers and childcare providers.
While this seems like a completely reasonable list of wonderful and positive things to do with your children, there is more I want to do in order to be a nurturing parent.
- Know their favorites. Colors, foods, stories, games, songs, jokes – just find out what their favorites are. These are great clues our children give us about their unique souls. If you don’t know – ask them – and tell them your favorites, too.
- Believe in them, even when your head might be telling you their idea is undoubtedly the most dubious, curious, or perplexing thought. You don’t have to believe in their ideas and dreams in order to believe in them.
- Be silly with them. Do you remember laughing with your friends from school, or maybe your group that goes for lunch once a month, so hard you thought you would snort and wheeze soda out your nose? Our children need to experience that kind of unabashed joy with us. (Even though tonight my teenage son lovingly jabbed my arm when I snorted with laughter during our family dinner at a restaurant, I know he still loved the laughter we were sharing, too.)
- Teach them. You don’t have to carry it to my homeschooling extreme, but teaching our children new things teaches us about them and about ourselves. Try a new game together, learn a new hobby together, or explore a new park together.
My Nurturing Mother
I don’t know if I can claim I have a 10% larger hippocampus than my neighbor, but I do know that my mother was and is an extremely nurturing parent. Even at my ripe old age of older-than-29, my mom still emails me little notes of encouragement, laughter, and support, and she has taken on the multifaceted role of mother/grandmother/mother-in-law/best friend with grace and humor. Real nurturing doesn’t go away – it just grows with us. Sometimes we don’t need brain scans to show us what we can feel. Besides, even if my brain is 10% larger, my mom would never take credit for it. She has always had a parenting rule: Don’t take credit for all of your child’s accomplishments and greatness, or you are stuck taking responsibility for all of their garbage, too.