On Vitality

The neuroscience of creating vitality

The Secret Superpowers of Mothers

New proof of the remarkable bonds between mothers and their children.

Dads, aunts, siblings, grandparents, step-parents, and others can be vitally important to children, of course, but there’s something special about moms—and scientists have demonstrated the powerful impact of moms.

While children are clearly capable of forming multiple bonds, the mother bond has long been know to be of primary importance. Carl Jung wrote that the very first archetype we build in our brain comes from our mothers, which means that before there is even the self, there is 'mama'. In fact, almost every known culture has a similar informal word for mother—ma, mom, mommy, mama. It comes from nursing. As the baby takes a breath while nursing, mamamamama is the sound that comes out.  That’s a pretty primal connection.

Another primal connection to our moms, occurs through our sense of smell. In one study, more than 90 percent of mothers were able to identify their baby by scent alone after spending only 10 minutes with them. After an hour, that number went to 100 percent. A baby knows his or her mother's smell, too. A separate study showed that when babies smelled their own mother’s milk, and not another's, they became calm and experienced less pain. Some scientists think the origin of kissing comes from the fact that pheromones are formed at the base of the nostrils—but who needs a reason to kiss a baby?

Nursing releases an enormous surge of oxytocin (the love hormone), one of the most powerful hormones in the body. It literally causes a mother to be smitten with her baby and the baby to be smitten with his or her mother. Caressing, massaging, and snuggling a baby produces similar surges of oxytocin. Even the simple act of gazing into her baby’s eyes will boost a mother's and her child's oxytocin levels.

A study led by Pilyoung Kim, PhD,  now with the National Institute of Mental Health, found that mothers’ gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain within months of giving birth. The areas of the brain that grew are related to motivation and behavior. This is an extraordinary demonstration of how one prepares for the enormous task of caring for a very fragile newborn.  The brain adapts so it comes "naturally" to care for your child.   In the study, mothers who “gushed” the most about their babies showed the most brain growth. This groundbreaking study proves that adult brains are neuroplastic—and validates conventional wisdom that love is, in fact, transformative. We now know that the remarkable agent behind this change is oxytocin.  

It’s not just mothers’ brains that get a boost: Children whose mothers nurtured them most successfully in early ife have brains with a larger hippocampus, the brain structure linked to learning, memory, and spatial navigation.

This body of research demonstates the critical role of the interation between the child and his or her primary caregiver, usually the mother. The mother-child bond is clearly the strongest force in childhood development, and it goes on to impact the adult that the child will become. The depth and quality of that love has a huge impact on adult well-being.

This Mother’s Day, I hope you will join me in celebrating the profound impact our mothers have had on our lives and share my gratitude that we live in a time when neuroscientists can explain the magic of mothers.  

Eva Ritvo, M.D. is vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami and co-author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.

more...

Subscribe to On Vitality

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?