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Mother's care during infancy impacts mental health in adulthood

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Mother's love

Studies show how a mother's love can help offspring cope with stress later in life.

The findings from researchers at Douglas Mental Health University Institute highlight the importance of a mother's touch and nurturing during infancy that later helps adult offspring cope with stress.

Claire-Dominique Walker, Douglas research scientist and study senior author explains, “For example, we have shown that, in rodent models, maternal high-fat feeding during the prenatal and lactational period blunts stress responsiveness in neonatal pups. In addition, we demonstrated that maternal licking of pups also blunted adult sensitivity to stress.” To put it in other words, they were less vulnerable to stressful situations.

The researchers say the studies are important and show that a mother's care can improve health outcomes for infants through non-invasive and easily implemented interventions.

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A new finding from Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience shows young men and women cope with stressful situations better and have more self-esteem with higher levels of caring and love from mother's during infancy.

Jens Pruessner, Douglas research scientist and senior author of the study. “However, while the low hormonal stress levels in the high maternal care group were associated with high self-esteem, subjects in the low maternal care group exhibited low self-esteem.”

According to the study authors, "In our own previous studies, we have shown how variations in early-life parental care influence the development of the hippocampus and modify the cortisol awakening response."

The study measured the effect of a mother's care on cortisol, heart rate and perceived stress among 63 healthy adults. The findings showed adults who received high levels of maternal care had lower cortisol levels, while those in low level groups had :increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased self-esteem..."

The way a mother interacts with her baby can have long-term effects on the brain related to self-esteem and response to stress later in life, highlighted in two recent studies. High levels of nurturing and love during infancy are important for mental health during adulthood.

Douglas Institute research