MONDAY, Jan. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Preschool children whose
moms are loving and nurturing have a larger hippocampus, an area of
the brain involved in learning, memory and stress response, when
they reach school age, a new study finds.
"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."
In the study, researchers conducted an experiment in which
children aged 3 to 6 were put into a frustrating situation. The
kids and their mothers were left in a room with a brightly wrapped
package. The kids 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,
and the child needs to control their impulses despite being faced
with something they want right at that moment.
Mothers who offered reassurance and support that helped their
child regulate their emotions and control their impulses were rated
as being nurturing. Mothers who either ignored the child or harshly
scolded the child were rated otherwise.
When the children were between 7 and 10 years old, researchers
did MRI brain scans of 92 of the kids who participated in that
Kids with the nurturing moms had a hippocampus that was 10
percent larger than the hippocampi of kids who had mothers that
were not deemed nurturing.
The study is 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, grandparents or even foster
parents -- on a child's emotional and behavioral development, Luby
said. Rodent studies have also shown a connection between physical
attributes of the brain and nurturing mothers.
"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," Luby said.
In the study, researchers excluded children who had depression
or other psychiatric disorders that could influence the size of the
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
And Myers added, "This study shows that aspects of the early
psycho-social environment can impact structural aspects of the
Yet, there are lots of stressors for today's parents that can
make it difficult to be as nurturing as they'd like to be. Time
pressures, financial stress and single parenting can all make it
more difficult, he said.
If moms are struggling, they should reach out to family,
friends, their church or seek professional counseling, Myers
"Holding your child, helping them learn to soothe themselves, or making time to have fun, positive time with kids, even 15 to 20 minutes a day, keeps that bond strong," Myers said.
And moms shouldn't be too hard on themselves either.
Occasionally losing patience and snapping at your children won't
cause their hippocampus to shrink.
Brains develop over years and years, so it's the overall quality
of the parent-child relationship that matters, he added.
"We all have bad days. Even child psychologists yell at their kids once in awhile," he said.
Nemours has more on how parents can help their children learn to
control their emotions and cope with frustration.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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