It turns out nurturing your young child may help them regulate stress

By on Apr 23rd

Photo by Spec-ta-cles, used under Creative Commons license.

I am super intrigued by this article, Nurturing Moms May Boost Children's Brain Growth. Researchers are positing that children with nurturing mothers may experience brain growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that processes memories and helps you deal with stress.

Note: they totally DID NOT include dads in the story, which is something I'd love to know about — does a nurturing father help in the same way?

When the children were between 7 and 10 years old, the researchers brought them in for brain imaging. The scans showed that those whose mothers had been most supportive several years earlier had a significantly larger hippocampus — on both sides of the brain — nearly 10% larger than the same regions in children with less empathetic mothers.

The hippocampus is crucial for recording and processing memory, a key function that predicts kids' learning and performance in school. The region is also believed to be important in regulating stress, but is threatened when the body's levels of stress hormones get too high. Previous research suggests that the effects of stress hormones on the hippocampus may help explain the link between stress and depression: when toxic levels of stress hormones cause shrinkage of the hippocampus, depression may result. During recovery, the region sprouts new cells.

In the current study, the link between brain growth and maternal support seen in mentally healthy children did not reach statistical significance in those with early life depression. What this means is still unclear. It could be that good mothering is not powerful enough to counter the brain effects of depression. Or, looked at another way, it could mean that a mom's nurture helps prevent early depression from doing even more damage. Perhaps it may also protect against depression that occurs later in life. The study wasn't able to measure these effects.

What the research did show is that in normal children, having a supportive mom is "directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation," as the authors put it.

So… nurturing mom = mellow kid? We'll see. To me, an interesting sub-question is the definition of "nurturing" — what does this mean and why? I'd love to know what you guys think! Check out the article and get back to me.