Washington: Children who receive adequate care and nurturing from their mothers during the preschool years are likely to have more robust growth in brain structures associated with learning, memory and stress response than children with less supportive mothers, suggests a new study.
The findings suggest it may be possible to help children do better in school, cope better in life and develop emotionally by helping parents learn to provide more support and nurturing early in the lives of their children.
“This study suggests there’s a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support,” said study first author Joan Luby, professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The findings were published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
In the study, the researchers were able to observe steady growth in the hippocampus of children with supportive mothers across multiple brain scans taken at different time periods, with 127 children receiving three MRI scans each from the time they first started school through early adolescence.
The researchers measured nurturing in mothers by closely observing and scoring videotaped interactions between mothers and their children.
The investigators observed mothers and children under moderately stressful conditions.
“The mother is asked to complete a task while we give the child an attractive gift to open, but we don’t allow it to be opened right away,” Luby said.
“It’s a stressful condition like those that happen multiple times each day in any given family, like when you’re cooking dinner and a child wants attention. The child needs something, but you have something else to do, so it challenges your parenting skills,” she pointed out.
Parents who are able to maintain their composure and complete assigned tasks while still offering emotional support to their children are rated as more nurturing and supportive.
Parents who dismiss their children, or behave in punitive ways during the test, receive lower marks for support.
Small changes in support indicated big differences in outcomes, Luby said.
In examining the brain scans, the researchers found that children whose mothers were more supportive than average had increases in growth of the hippocampus that were more than two times greater than in those whose mothers were slightly below average on the nurturing scale.