Early Nurturing Boosts Brain Development

by Virginia B. Hargrove

Early Nurturing Boosts Baby's BrainHas this scenario ever played at your house?

You're scrambling around the kitchen getting ready for tonight's dinner. Pots and pans are bubbling and sizzling.

You hear a sudden slam and a scurrying of stomping feet, signaling your three year old's imminent arrival.

At the top of her lungs, your small fry whines, "Mommy, this puzzle won't work! I need your help, now!" Her small foot stomps to add emphasis to her plight.

Freeze the scene. How would you choose to respond?

Would you say, "I'm sorry you're having trouble. I bet you feel frustrated when those pieces don't fit. I can help you in a few minutes."


"I'm busy right now. Go play a few minutes more until mommy is done."

Even as adults, we can see how the two responses make us feel. How you react to your kids can have unexpected results. New research confirms that parents who are nurturing from the start, help promote and boost their baby's brain growth.

More Hugs Equals More Brain

The study team from Washington University School of Medicine's Early Emotional Development Program, set up situation designed to approximate the stresses of daily parenting. The moms and their four- to seven-year-old children were left in a room with a brightly wrapped present. The kids were told they could open the package, but they had to wait until their parent finished some paperwork.

Does this situation sound familiar to you? It should. How many of you moms (and dads) have tried filling out forms at the doctor, or tried to clean up a spill while your child demands your attention? We're pretty sure most of you!

For eight long minutes, researchers observed the mothers' behavior toward the children. Did the moms reassure their kids and support their efforts to remain patient and control their impulses? Or were the moms the less nurturing type, ignoring or scolding the child instead?

Three years later, the children returned to the lab for brain imaging and measuring. The scans showed that the children whose mothers had been nurturing and supportive had a significantly larger hippocampus -- nearly 10% larger than the same regions in the children with less empathetic mothers.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain used for and with memory, stress response and learning.

"It is the first study of its kind on humans that shows a link between early nurturing and hippocampal volume," said Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry and lead author. "This study validates something that seems to be intuitive...just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings."

Nurturing Your Child

What does nurturing your child mean to you? We feed our children nutritious meals. We read them stories and tuck them in at night. Does nurturing involve more than just these types of activities? A logical answer would be yes. Nurturing gives parents the opportunity to respond to and empathize with their children.

Empathize and Relate

Even if you can't fix the problem, you can give your child the gift of understanding. We all know how good it feels to have someone acknowledge our feelings. It just makes it easier even when we don't get our way.

Allow Your Child to Express Emotions

Accept your child’s emotions, rather than denying or minimizing them. Feelings aren't shameful or unacceptable -- even anger that a younger sibling took your toy or your mommy.

Listen to Your Child

At six months or sixteen years, your child needs you to hear about and listen to their emotions. Once expressed, kids can let them go and get on with life.

Teach Problem Solving Skills

Pregnancy.org expert Dr. Laura Markham, tells parents that emotions are messages, not mud for wallowing. She encourages teaching your children to breathe through them, feel them, tolerate them without needing to act on them. "Once they aren't in the grip of strong emotion, you can problem-solve and act if necessary."

Playtime as a Stage

Kids experience big feelings on a daily basis. They might feel powerless and pushed around, angry, sad, frightened or jealous. Playtime becomes your child's opportunity to deal with these emotions.

Next time you're feeling like you're going to "lose your cool" with your kids, take that deep cleansing breath in, breath out the tension and send it some place else. It's good for your baby's brain.

Do you practice nurturing in your home? Tell us what you do!

SOURCES: Joan Luby, M.D., professor, psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis; Robert Myers, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor, psychiatry and human behavior, University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, and founder, Child Development Institute; Jan. 30-Feb. 3, 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online.

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