Motherly love can help children’s brains grow at twice the rate as neglected youngsters, a study has shown.
Although it is known that a nurturing, stable home life improves overall childhood development, it is the first research to prove that it has a significant impact on brain size.
Children who received the most support from their mother’s before school were found to have more growth in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning, memories and regulating emotions.
Crucially, those youngsters who were more neglected when they were under six did not catch up, even when their mothers became more supportive in later years.
“This study suggests there’s a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support,” said first author Dr Joan Luby, Washington University child psychiatrist at St Louis Children’s Hospital.
“The parent-child relationship during the preschool period is vital, even more important than when the child gets older.
“We think that’s due to greater plasticity in the brain when kids are younger, meaning that the brain is affected more by experiences very early in life. That suggests it’s vital that kids receive support and nurturing during those early years.”
The study followed 127 children from when they were just about to start school, to early adolescence, scanning their brains throughout.
The researchers measured nurturing in mothers by closely observing and scoring videotaped interactions between mothers and their children.
In the interactions, the mothers were asked to complete a task while also preventing their child opening an attractively wrapped gift, a scenario supposed to reflect an everyday situation such as when a child wants attention but a mother is busy.
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.
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.
The researchers also found that the growth trajectory in the hippocampus was associated with healthier emotional functioning when the children entered their teen years.
“Early maternal support affects the child’s brain development,” added Dr Luby.
“We also know that providing support to parents can have a positive impact on other behavioral and adaptive outcomes in children. So we have a very logical reason to encourage policies that help parents become more supportive.”
The study is published online April 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.