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Your Care Directly Develops Your Baby’s Brain

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Cuddling a baby is one of life’s great pleasures. But new research suggests that cuddling, nursing, and stroking an infant may actually affect brain development at the exact moment it’s happening.  A parent’s care may directly shape early neural activity and contribute to brain growth.

The study that has neurologists paying attention this week didn’t involve human babies. It involved newborn rats and their mothers. To be able to view brain activity in the moment, scientists at New York University’s Langone Medical Center inserted wireless transmitters into the brains of one rat pup per litter. They then videotaped activity in the nest, as the mother rats cared for all the pups in their litters. By synchronizing the video with the recorded brainwave activity, scientists were able to see what actions by the mothers affected pups’ brains in what ways.

There were significant differences in brain activity when the pups were left alone in the nest, when the pups were nursing, and when the mothers were grooming them. All of these actions by the mother are normal and necessary and all of the brain reactions of the pups were expected. What was unexpected was the as-it-happened quality of the brain responses. These were not things that happened later. Baby rats’ brains were changed immediately.

Lead researcher Regina Sullivan said, “Our research shows how in mammals the mother’s sensory stimulation helps sculpt and mold the infant’s growing brain and helps define the role played by ‘nurturing’ in healthy brain development, and offers overall greater insight into what constitutes good mothering.”

Good mothering is what everyone wants to deliver. Even though this study was conducted with rats – for obvious ethical reasons, such a study couldn’t be done in the same way with human babies – the point for we human parents is that careful nurturing and the time it takes to provide careful nurturing is an essential for development. It’s required by our biology. Mother Nature expects mothers to nurture.

What does this mean for new parents?

  1. Cherish the time you have with your baby. Even though baby care may be repetitive, messy, stressful, and even boring, being connected to your child and fully engaged in care is a good thing. It translates into optimal development.
  2. Strive to remain calm and unhurried when you care for your newborn. Mother rats are not thinking of six things at once. They think only of one thing – their infants. Never treat your baby roughly, never prop a bottle for feeding, and never leave a child to cry. No babies were meant to be treated that way.
  3. Spend as much time as you can with your baby for at least the first four months. This may mean taking an extended maternity leave or working from home. In the study, the baby rats’ brains became less instantly sensitive to their mothers at the time of weaning onto solid foods. Give your own child the same uninterrupted time, if you can do it.
  4. If you must choose an alternative caregiver for your child’s early months, choose wisely. Find a caregiver who takes seriously the needs of an infant and who is not distracted by other babies or children. The brain development that happens through everyday care is development that isn’t easily added in later.

Your baby only has one brain and now we can suspect that even everyday parenting has an impact on that brain. Do your best every day to nurture your child.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.