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Nurturing from mom helps a child's brain develop

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Nurturing from mom leads to better brain development in children, finds study.

A new study validates the importance of a mother’s love and nurturing is for a child’s brain development. Psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found a mother's love plays a critical role in the development of the hippocampus of a child's brain that is important for learning and memory.

Researchers used brain imaging to compare children, age 7 to 10, who were depressed or who had other mental disorders to those who were mentally healthy in a study that began nearly 10 years ago.

Children were initially videotaped interacting with a parent that was most often a mother. For this study children were asked to wait to open a gift while the parent completed a task.

Raters who knew nothing about the study participants viewed the videotapes noting how much the parent nurtured and supported their child under circumstances that may make the stress of daily parenting.

Lead author Joan L. Luby, MD, professor of child psychiatry says “It’s very objective. Whether a parent was considered a nurturer was not based on that parent’s own self-assessment. Rather, it was based on their behavior and the extent to which they nurtured their child under these challenging conditions.”

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For the current investigation the researchers performed brain scans on 92 of the children from the initial study. The scans showed the hippocampus of healthy children without depression who had been nurtured by their parent were 10% larger, compared to children whose mothers were not loving and supportive.

According to Luby, “This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings.” The study is believed to be the first to show a mother’s nurturing has an effect on how the hippocampus develops.

The area of the brain is a major structure important for short and long-term memory and spatial navigation. It is also important for helping us cope with stress when hormones are released that increase heart rate, helping us to cope later in life.

The finding suggests parents should be taught how to nurture and support their children. Nurturing from mom or other primary caregiver has a positive effect on helping a child’s brain develop, according to the study finding.

Luby JL, et al.
"Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Jan. 30, 2012.

This page is updated on Sept. 28, 2013.