You comfort them over a skinned knee in the playground, and coax them to sleep with a soothing lullaby. But being a nurturing mother is not just about emotional care – it pays dividends by determining the size of your child’s brain, scientists say.
Both of these images are brain scans of a two three-year-old children, but the brain on the left is considerably larger, has fewer spots and less dark areas, compared to the one on the right.
According to neurologists this sizeable difference has one primary cause – the way each child was treated by their mothers.
But the child with the shrunken brain was the victim of severe neglect and abuse.
Babies’ brains grow and develop as they interact with their environment and learn how to function within it.
When babies’ cries bring food or comfort, they are strengthening the neuronal pathways that help them learn how to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally. But babies who do not get responses to their cries, and babies whose cries are met with abuse, learn different lessons.
The neuronal pathways that are developed and strengthened under negative conditions prepare children to cope in that negative environment, and their ability to respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired.
According to research reported by the newspaper, the brain on the right in the image above worryingly lacks some of the most fundamental areas present in the image on the left.
The consequences of these deficits are pronounced – the child on the left with the larger brain will be more intelligent and more likely to develop the social ability to empathise with others.
This type of severe, global neglect can have devastating consequences. The extreme lack of stimulation may result in fewer neuronal pathways available for learning.
The lack of opportunity to form an attachment with a nurturing caregiver during infancy may mean that some of these children will always have difficulties forming meaningful relationships with others. But studies have also found that time played a factor–children who were adopted as young infants have shown more recovery than children who were adopted as toddlers.
But in contrast, the child with the shrunken brain will be more likely to become addicted to drugs and involved in violent crimes, much more likely to be unemployed and to be dependent on state benefits.
The child is also more likely to develop mental and other serious health problems.
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