“Hello. Hello, how are you? Hello, darling,” a mother gazes at her infant as it frowns in blue-eyed concentration at the smudged outlines of the face above him. The voice is familiar but the place is not. So much bright light, air, sound. And the voice, again, “Hello?”
Research tells us that a mother may say “hello” to her baby as often as 15 times a minute. The welcome implicit in this greeting began not only in the womb as the mother carried the infant for nine months, but already in the brains of mother and child.
The brain chemicals that bind mother and child begin their work at conception. Oxytocin, a neuropeptide also known as the love hormone, was released during sex, deepening feelings of attachment and contentment between parents, mother, and fetus. Oxytocin came back into play at the child’s birth, enabling the womb contractions necessary for childbirth and the release of milk in breastfeeding.
Over time, vasopressin, the commitment hormone, weaves its spell, binding parents in a loving relationship and connecting them to their offspring. However, much more than loving neuropeptides are needed to bond with a child to give the infant the sort of confidence that will propel them through life: time and nurturing are nature’s essential companions. Decades of research by neuroscientists and behavioral specialists underscores the truth that children exposed to a loving touch, eye contact, and language, especially from one or two consistent caregivers, have increased feelings of personal security and are more likely to excel at school.
Years of research by University of Utah anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, and her team, among the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers who live an ancient lifestyle in Tanzania, found that grandmothers were essential to the life expectancy and thriving of infants. The grands also enabled moms to cope with new offspring, finding food, or other chores. More recent research by Alyssa Crittenden and Frank Marlowe of the University of California San Diego showed that other members of the Hadza, regardless of blood relationship to the family, help with childrearing. Their example echoes the venerable African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child.”
What is the relevance of this research for those of us living in the United States or in other developed nations? Quite simply, when we rely on nature without nurture, our children are apt to display neuroses, mental illness, and suboptimal academic performance.
Research by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that children who receive intense nurturing from their mothers early in life have brains with a larger hippocampus, the brain region key to learning, memory, and responses to stress. Their research began as a study into preschoolers with depression. Children were filmed interacting with a primary caregiver, usually their mother. The Washington University researchers found that the less nurturing a mother was, the more likely a child was to be depressed. By the time the children were ready for school, brain scans showed that the children with nurturing mothers had hippocampi a tenth larger. Studies on depressed adults have likewise revealed smaller-than-average hippocampi. These results in children have clear consequences for workplace and educational policy.
In societies where generous maternity and paternity leave is allowed, we see high academic-achievement rates for children. In Finland, students consistently score the highest marks in the world in all subjects including math; Singapore follows. Finnish children have almost no homework — sometimes 10 minutes a day in high school — and among the shortest school days anywhere. Finland’s competitive advantage in creating smart children starts with thoughtful parenting policies. Pregnant women in Finland may begin maternity leave seven weeks before the expected birth of their infant. Once the baby is born, the government awards a maternity grant of 16 weeks of paid leave regardless of whether the mother is a student, unemployed, or self-employed. Dads get eight weeks of paid paternity leave. After the child’s third birthday, Finland offers parents partial-care leave, in which they split time between home and work until the child starts second grade.
In Denmark, women get 18 weeks of maternity leave at full pay, while dads get a month of paid leave to help care for their newborn. Parents can then split 32 additional weeks of leave in whatever way they see fit. The government covers 52 weeks of pay (though not always at the full salary).
The United States is one of only four countries — of 196 in the world — with no federal parental-leave policy to give new parents paid leave. It is of little wonder then, perhaps, that educational achievements in the United States lag. In 2017, Pew Research showed that educational standards in the United States were below those of most industrialized nations. It highlighted the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, which placed the United States at 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. The results are worse when ranked with the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where the United States ranked 30th in math and 19th in science. The United States ranked 24th out of 26 countries in the category of reading, well below countries like Estonia, Poland, and Canada.
Coupled with this, some of our advice to pregnant or new mothers may work against the interests of mom and baby.
New research causing vigorous discussion indicates that vaginal births and breastfeeding apparently trigger higher levels of oxytocin — improving the mother’s ability to cope with lower stress reactions to a crying infant. Marc Bornstein, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s, researched crying babies with 684 healthy mothers from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, France, Kenya, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. His team discovered that the “infant cry excites some adults, mothers included, to respond with empathy and care but others with neglect or even abuse.” The research found that in a very short amount of time from the start of the cry (five seconds) they preferred to pick up and hold or to talk to their infant. MRI scans showed that hearing an infant cry activated regions in the brain tied to the intention to move, grasp, and speak, the processing of auditory stimuli and caregiving.
The more we learn about the brain, the more apparent it becomes that framing a parenting debate as “nature versus nurture” is intrinsically wrong, the two need to be in a dynamic partnership to create happier humans. The more knowledge we acquire about the functioning of the brain, the wiser we realize many traditional communities are about love, commitment, and child-rearing.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Brain World Magazine.