When children are nurtured by their mothers during the preschool years, they show strong growth in the parts of the brain associated with memory, learning, and the stress response. Children with moms who are less supportive have less growth in those portions of the brain, according to research completed at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"This study suggests there's a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support," said first author Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
The study was published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
The researchers studied brain scans of young people from preschool age through early adolescence. They discovered an increase in the size of the hippocampus in the children whose mothers nurtured and sustained them during the preschool years.
But the hippocampus looked smaller in adolescents whose moms were less supportive during the years before kindergarten. This location is the region of the brain that is linked to regulating emotions, learning, and memory. The decreased size of the hippocampus remained even when some mothers became more attentive when their children were in elementary and middle school, according to Jim Dryden of the Washington University School of Medicine.
These same researchers had previously found that there was a link between maternal nurturing and a bigger hippocampus shown in brain scans taken when kids were of elementary school age.
The new study allowed researchers to recognize ongoing growth in the hippocampus of youngsters who have supportive moms through numerous brains scans that were taken at various time periods. 127 children were given three MRI scans each from their first day in school through their early adolescence.
"The parent-child relationship during the preschool period is vital, even more important than when the child gets older," Luby said. "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 growth trajectory in the hippocampus, the scientists discovered, was connected with stronger emotional functioning when the young ones entered their teenage years. Again, when parents became nurturing when their children were older, the sustenance did not give the same benefits in the growth of the brain.
Nurturing in mothers was measured by the close observation and scoring of videotaped interactions between the moms and their kids. The observations took place as moms and children interacted under moderately stressful situations.
The conditions were set up by the team and included having the mother complete a task with their children. Meanwhile, the researchers gave the child an appealing gift to open that could not to be opened immediately, reports IANS.
The action set up a stressful condition that was much like incidents that happen many times a day in most families. The young one needs something, the parent has a task to complete, and the overlap means a parent's skills are going to be challenged.
Parents who keep their composure and complete necessary tasks while continuing to give emotional support to their kids were identified by the team as nurturing and supportive.
The Daily Telegraph reports that the children who had mothers who were graded as more supportive than average had jumps in the growth of the hippocampus that were more than twice as great as those of children who had moms ranked at slightly below average.
Samantha Olson of Medical Daily reports that children create 700 to 1,000 new neural connections every second during their first few years of life. Their brain functions for the rest of their childhood and adolescence are integrally linked to their early years.