Babies' Faces Jump Start Nurturing

by Julie Snyder

Baby Eyes Babies are human magnets! You see a baby and before you have time to think about it, you raise your eyebrows, smile and initiate a one-sided conversation in fluent "baby talk." Even burly men stop to peek into a baby carrier and coo at a newborn.

"The sight of that little, round face and big eyes stops me in my tracks. I just want to give those chubby little cheeks a squeeze, snatch the sweet baby right up and love on 'em...not that it would be socially acceptable at times," says Theresa, a member.

Have you every looked at a sweet baby's face and felt that pull to make their world better?

This is Your Brain on Baby

You can't help yourself. It's human nature to nurture a baby -- even if you're not related to or know the child, according to a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and in Germany, Italy, and Japan.

They noted that certain areas of the brain become active when adults look at a picture of an infant's face, even when the child isn't theirs. These distinct patterns of activity might indicate a predisposition in our species to care for infants.

To collect the data, the researchers showed seven men and nine women a series of images while recording their brain activity with a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. In the scanner, participants viewed images of puppy and kitten faces, full-grown dogs and cats, human infants and adults.

"These adults have no children of their own. Yet images of a baby's face triggered what we think might be a deeply embedded response to reach out and care for that child," said senior author Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D., head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that collaborated on the study.

When the researchers compared the areas and strength of brain activity in response to each kind of image, they found that infant images evoked more activity in areas of the brain areas associated with three main functions:

  • Premotor and preverbal activity: Researchers noted increased activity in the premotor cortex and the supplemental motor area, which are regions of the brain directly under the crown of the head. Impulses in these areas plan and set up speech and movement.
  • Facial recognition: Activity in the fusiform gyrus -- on each side of the brain, about where the ears are --is associated with processing of information about faces. Activity in this area might indicate heightened attention to the movement and expressions on an infant's face.
  • Emotion and reward: Activity deep in the brain areas known as the insula and the cingulate cortex that indicate emotional arousal, empathy, attachment and feelings linked to motivation and reward. Other studies have documented a similar pattern of activity in the brains of parents responding to their own infants.

Participants also rated how they felt when viewing adult and infant faces. They reported feeling more willing to approach, smile at, and communicate with a baby than an adult. They also recorded feeling happier when viewing images of infants.

The researchers say that these findings suggest that all humans are hard-wired to interact with babies and enjoy it. Such brain activity in non-parents could indicate that our brains have a mechanism to ensure that infants survive and receive the care they need to grow and develop.

Previous studies have only inferred this behavior and only between parents and their babies.

However, signs of readiness to care for a child that appear in the brains of some or even most adults, do not necessarily mean the same patterns will appear in the brains of all adults, Dr. Bornstein said, "It's equally important to investigate what's happening in the brains of those who have neglected or abused children." He continued to add, "Additional studies could help us confirm and understand what appears to be a parenting instinct in adults, both when the instinct functions and when it fails to function."

When Nurturing Doesn't Come Naturally

Some parents seem like naturals when it comes to parenting. It's as if they were born knowing how to relate to a tiny human. Others don't feel that instant bond with their baby.

Not feeling happy when you look at a baby or not getting all mushy and soft inside doesn't mean that you won't be a loving and competent parent. It could mean you'll have to try a little harder to connect with your baby.

These tips can help you get acquainted and interacting with your new baby:

Have realistic expectations: The first weeks can be a roller coaster of emotions. A new baby comes with a lot of responsibilities, tons of things to learn, no instruction book and not much time.

Take time to get acquainted: Your baby's learning about the world and you're learning about your baby.

Learn how baby's communicate: At first baby body language looks like a batch of random motions and noises. As you spend time together you'll find the keys to understanding your small and mysterious babe.

See what's typical during your baby's first year.

Whether your brain lights up along with your baby's eyes or you have to work at developing that relationship, you've got the resources you need to cherish your baby and raise a happy, cooperative, responsible child.

Have you done your own experiments looking at babies to see if this study works for you? Tell us what you think!

Medical references:
Caria, Andrea, de Falco, Simona, Venuti, Paola, Lee, Sangkyun, Esposito, Gianluca, Rigo, Paola, Birmbaumer, Niels, Bornstein, Marc H. (2012) "Species-specific response to human infant faces in the premotor cortex." NeuroImage (accepted December 22, 2011)

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