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Study shows that children’s brains develop better if they’re with nurturing mothers during preschool years

MOM AND SON
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For healthy development, children do best when surrounded by the love and affection of their parents.

A few days ago while browsing the web, I came across two MRI images placed next to each other to reveal the difference in development between the brains of two 3-year-old children. One had been loved and taken care of by his mother, and the other had experienced the opposite—extreme neglect—which had been reported to Child Protective Services. The image was originally published in 1997 by Professor Bruce D. Perry, a world-renowned infantile psychiatrist and expert in childhood development, who specifically studies the impact of a lack of love and affection on children.

The difference is clear. Click here to see his report and the original image (which we aren’t sharing directly due to copyright). It shows that the brain of the child deprived of interaction and sensory stimulation from human interaction was “significantly smaller than average” and had “abnormal development of the cortex.”

Fortunately, that kind of extreme neglect isn’t the case for the vast majority of children. However, extreme cases like that help us to see where a lack of love and care can lead. They reinforce the fact that the ideal environment for the harmonious development of a person is one full of affection, attention, and healthy stimulation through interaction with parents and family. When a child is denied these conditions, there are very serious consequences.

A more recent study also speaks of the importance of a mother’s relationship with her children during early childhood for the development of their brains and their emotions. It sounds a bit like rediscovering the wheel, but we’re at a point in history when if things aren’t confirmed by science, people don’t believe in them.

The research, carried out by Joan L. Luby, Andy Belden, Michael P. Harms, Rebecca Tillman, and Deanna M. Barch, was published in April 2016 by the journal PNAS (Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). The article is titled “Preschool is a sensitive period for the influence of maternal support on the trajectory of hippocampal development.”

The presentation of the article on the PNAS website explains that the study used data from 127 children who underwent magnetic resonance imaging three times during their childhood, ending in early adolescence. Using that information, the scientists modeled “the effects of preschool and school-age maternal support on hippocampal volumes.” The result: the more maternal support the children received, the more their hippocampus grew. This is significant, the study explains, because the hippocampus plays an important role in stress management, coping, and affective health.

This means that the medium- and long-term effects of maternal support in early childhood are scientifically measurable and positive. The authors explain in more detail:

“The data also suggested that early childhood was a sensitive period when the effects of support had a more powerful effect on hippocampal growth. The hippocampal growth trajectory was associated with better emotion regulation in early adolescence. Findings suggest that enhancing early childhood maternal support fosters healthy childhood brain development and emotional functioning.”

What does “maternal support” mean for the researchers? They describe it as “the degree to which mothers view and approach their children with positive regard overall, as well as their efforts to be emotionally and developmentally aware of their children’s emotional well-being.”

According to the authors, the results of the study should lead to public policy measures aimed at protecting this initial, delicate, and highly important stage of development:

“The finding that maternal support experienced during the preschool period has a tangible impact on the trajectory of hippocampal development through school age and early adolescence further underscores the importance of public health efforts to enhance maternal support during early childhood, a goal that has proven to be both feasible and cost-effective.”

As individuals and as a society, let us help make it possible for mothers to spend abundant, positive, quality time with their children during their first years of childhood. It will benefit them — and all of us.

Read more: 6 Tips for raising emotionally healthy kids

Read more: Why you need to hug your kids … even when they try to squirm away

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