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Mothers may be the glue that holds many families together, but no two moms are alike. Still, mothers share many things in common — and at the top of that list is the huge impact they have on the lives of their children. To that end, motherhood is the subject of scientific studies worldwide. Here is good news drawn from some of the findings:
Moms teach without even trying
Scientists have discovered that babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language. This finding indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, earlier than previously thought.
“The mother has first dibs on influencing the child’s brain,” says Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units, and the fetus locks onto them.”
Nurturing moms have smarter kids
School-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life have brains with a larger hippocampus, a key structure important to learning, memory, and response to stress, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research, by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine, was the first to show that a mother’s nurturing is linked to this critical region of children’s brain anatomy.
“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” says research author Joan L. Luby, MD. “I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”
Being empathetic goes a long way
Nurturing mothers have always garnered accolades for kissing boo-boos. Now they’re getting credit for their offspring’s physical health in middle age. In a long-term study published in the journal Psychological Science, psychologists found that even among groups that would have higher rates of chronic illness in adulthood, adults who had nurturing mothers ,in childhood fared better in physical health in midlife. More proof of the huge impact good moms can have.
Attentive moms help keep kids off drugs
Through daily interactions, engaged moms help children understand healthy boundaries, learn self-control, and make good decisions. But it goes beyond that. A strong mother-child bond in childhood, especially in the first three years of life, develops the brain chemistry that can help people resist drug and alcohol addiction later in life. The research, conducted in Australia, found some people’s lack of resilience to addictive behaviors may be linked to poor development of their oxytocin systems. The antidote? A loving, nurturing mom, of course.
Mom’s voice can be as comforting as a hug
A simple phone call from mom can calm frayed nerves by sparking the release of a powerful stress-quelling hormone, according to researchers. The study, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looked at a group of 7- to 12-year-old girls who were challenged to answer math questions in front of a panel of strangers. One third of the girls were comforted by their mothers with a hug or pat on the back, a third viewed a neutral video, and a third spoke to their mom on the phone.
The results were dramatic: the children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same positive hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone. The girls’ levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” and strongly associated with emotional bonding, rose significantly among those who had contact with their moms, while the stress-marking cortisol washed away. The video-watching group did not experience the same benefits.
Sometimes, less of mom is more
When you plop on the floor to play with your child, there’s more going on than just a game. In a study that looked at the dynamics of play, researchers found that the more mothers tried to control the content and pace of the game, the more children pulled away. Children in the study also expressed more negative feelings toward their mother when the mother was highly directive.
For example, during play with her child, a highly directive mother might make her toddler put the plastic cow in the toy barn through the barn’s door instead of through its window. While mothers often think they are helping their children by correcting them, they are limiting the children’s creativity and taking the fun out of the game, notes Jean Ispa, lead author of the study.
“Children flourish when they have opportunities to make choices about what they do, particularly in play situations,” says Ispa, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri. “Mothers who are highly directive do not allow that kind of choice.” Moms can counter that effect with affection, however.
“Children take in the meaning of what their mothers are trying to do, so if a mom is being very directive and is generally a very warm person, I think the child feels, ‘My mom is doing this because she cares about me, and she’s trying to do the best for me,’” Ispa said. “If that warmth is missing, then the child might feel, ‘My mom is trying to control me, and I don’t like it.’”
Regardless of where you fall on the mothering spectrum, remember the lasting impact your care and love gives to your children, today and always. Happy Mother’s Day!
KiKi Bochi of Miami, Florida, is a mother of two who still marvels at her power. A long-time journalist, she writes about family health.