For 20 years, Dr. Michael Meaney, a neurologist at McGill University, has been meticulously studying the rats in his laboratory. He noticed that, much like us humans, each mother rat raises her children differently from other mother rats. Some mother rats spend a good amount of time grooming and licking their babies. Other mother rats spend much less time nurturing their offspring.
Dr. Meaney found that these differences in nurturing had consequences as the rats aged. Rats that were groomed and licked by their mothers more often were better at navigating mazes. They were more curious and more social. They lived longer.
Dissecting some of these adult rats, Dr. Meaney found that the amount of licking affected brain development and anatomy. The rats that were licked more often had better-developed stress centers, so they were better able to control stress.
As Dr. Meaney’s research has emerged, other researchers have applied it to humans. The human version of licking is holding, hugging, and reading to babies and young children. Do these simple behaviors affect us as profoundly as licking affects rats?
At the University of Minnesota researchers have followed 267 children since 1970. These children (now adults) were born to first-time, low-income mothers. As researchers measured their functioning during the different phases of their lives, those who had supportive and nurturing early years did better in a variety of ways than those who didn’t. For instance, being nurtured in early life was more predictive of who graduated high school than was intelligence.
Keeping these findings in mind, programs across the country are refocusing their efforts, intervening before problems start. The Nurse-Family Partnership is an example. This national program sends nurses out to first-time, at-risk moms. Nurses visit mothers at home, regularly, from the time the mother is pregnant until their child turns 2. During these visits the nurses educate the new mothers about practical matters such as not using drugs or alcohol and how to handle finances. They also encourage mothers to make a habit of cuddling, singing lullabies, and reading to their child. The results: by the age of 15, their children are less than half as likely to have been arrested as kids from similar circumstances who were not enrolled. (Someone needs to start one of these programs in Northern Nevada!)
Even for those of us who actively try to be nurturing parents, this research is a good reminder: Don’t forget to hug your kids. Taking this a step further, if you can in some way support or influence a parent who isn’t nurturing their child, please do. You could potentially improve a child’s entire life.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.