The brains of well-nurtured children develop faster than the brains of children who are neglected, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — and the gap persists in later years despite changes in the level of support.
The researchers, from Washington University in the US, followed 127 children from an early age through to early adolescence, taking regular brain scans throughout the study period.
Nurturing was measured by closely observing interactions between mothers and their children, in which the mothers were asked to complete a task while preventing their child opening a wrapped gift. The scenario was designed to recreate a typical situation in which a child wants attention while the mother is distracted.
Participants were rated based on their ability to complete the task and simultaneously offer their children emotional support.
The researchers found that when they compared this score with the children’s brain scans, those with supportive mothers experienced hippocampus growth at twice the rate of those whose parents displayed below average nurturing skills.
The hippocampus is associated with learning, regulating emotions (particularly during puberty) and memory function.
It is the first research of its kind to demonstrate a significant link between brain size and parental support.
The study’s lead author, Dr Joan Luby, said: ‘This study suggests there’s a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support. The parent-child relationship during the preschool period is vital, even more important than when the child gets older.
‘We think that’s due to greater plasticity in the brain when kids are younger, meaning that the brain is affected more by experiences very early in life. That suggests it’s vital that kids receive support and nurturing during those early years.’
It has long been recognised by experts and parents alike that the early developing years of a child are key to their future psychological well-being.
This small study found that children of supportive, caring and nurturing mothers appeared to have a larger part of the brain known as the hippocampus than those children who did not receive such support. Children who received most support pre-school had the greatest growth in this brain area, whereas more neglected youngsters never caught up in this area, even when more support was given to them after the age of six.
This is the first research showing that early nurturing behaviour has a significant impact on brain size, and confirms how important the early pre-school years are for the parent-child relationship.
This healthier emotional functioning appears to extend into the teenage years too, so it is now both logical and sensible to encourage any policy that helps parents become more supportive to their children from a very early age.
Although this is not ground-breaking research in the sense that it confirms what has long been observed, it is helpful to have confirmation that nurture, perhaps more than nature, has a major impact on brain development in young children.
Research score: 3/5