Maternal Care in Early Life Boosts Resilience into Adulthood

The quality of postnatal maternal care can influence well-being for a lifespan.

Posted Dec 17, 2013

Scientists have reconfirmed that our earliest postnatal life experiences can have a dramatic influence on an individual's predisposition to be resilient—or susceptible to mental and cognitive problems later in life. Researchers from University of California at Irvine recently discovered that the quality of maternal care and sensory input from the mother can alter genes in an infant that may affect his or her well-being throughout a lifespan.

As the father of a 6-year-old, I know first hand the biological urge to do what is best for your child. Unfortunately, not every caregiver, father, or mother is in a position to provide a child with the loving and nurturing environment needed to optimize healthy development.

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post titled “Family Values Hypocrisy” cited a Harvard University study from 2004 which found that of 168 countries it examined, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave. The United States was not one of the 163. Another Washington Post writer observed that “the U.S. is on par with places like Papua New Guinea and Swaziland when it comes to paid family leave.”

There is growing hope among researchers of early childhood development that policymakers will pay attention to new studies like this and begin to invest in future generations today by allowing mothers to spend the valuable time bonding with their children in the early postnatal period. Paid maternity leave is important in order to avoid outcomes that will cost society and the government exponentially later in the form of law enforcement, prisons, substance abuse, physical and mental treatment programs...

Maternal Care Can Chemically Influence Genes Related to Stress Disorders

A December 2013 study from the University of California at Irvine found that high levels of maternal care during the early postnatal period in rodents can reduce the sensitivity of the offspring to stressful events during adulthood. Maternal care is shown to chemically modify and thereby re-program genes that control stress responses making them less likely to be activated. The findings have important implications for understanding early environment influences on stress-related disorders in humans as well.

The new study, led by Tallie Z. Baram, explored the impact of maternal care on stress systems in the brain, which are believed to influence a person's vulnerability to depression. The authors separated rat pups from their mothers for a short time every day for a week. This led to intense maternal care every day when pups and mother-rats were reunited. The activity of neurons that produce the stress chemical corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) were then examined in the brains of these offspring and compared with those from control offspring.

The researchers found that enhanced quality of maternal care experienced by the pups reduced the excitability of CRH-producing stress neurons in their brains. This effect was also associated with reduced activity of stress-associated genes in these neurons.

More specifically, the reduced activity of stress-related genes stemmed from altered activity of a protein called NRSF, which is an important regulator of gene expression in the brain. This rewiring of brain stress circuits in the rat pups that received an enhanced quality of maternal care was associated with less activation of stress-related genes later in life.

Hopefully the findings of this study will encourage more research to better explain the beneficial effects of maternal care on resilience to stress-related disorders in humans. According to Dr. Baram, "The findings show a direct causal effect of sensory input from the mother on the function of stress handling throughout life, and pinpoint the molecular changes involved. They also show plasticity of the wiring of the infant brain."

According to the researchers, there are also future implications of early maternal love for those who may be vulnerable to depression. "If we figure out exactly how cells regulate their stress molecules, we can modify and improve the function of the stress system in individuals who have not benefited from optimal early life environment, and perhaps prevent vulnerability to stress-related mental and cognitive problems," said Dr. Baram.

Conclusion: Effective Parenting Programs can Reduce Problem Behaviors in Teens

What can we as parents, counselors, and policymakers do to help a child who did not receive enough maternal love early in life avoid the biggest adolescent problems of substance use, delinquency, school dropout, pregnancy, and violence?

Another study titled,“Promising Parenting Programmes for Reducing Adolescent Problem Behaviours” was published in the Journal of Children's Services on December 16, 2013. The University of Washington researchers identified five effective parenting programs to help reduce problem behaviors during the teenage years that can have repercussions for the rest of a person's life.

Parenting programs can help parents and children at all risk levels avoid adolescent behavior problems that affect not only individuals, but entire communities. "With these programs, you see marked decreases in drug use, reduced aggression, reduced depression and anxiety, and better mental health," said Kevin Haggerty, assistant director of the UW's Social Development Research Group in the School of Social Work.

"You see the impact of when parents get on the same page and work together to provide an environment that promotes well-being. You can make long-term impacts." Haggerty said, “it's ironic that parents spend hours taking birthing classes to prepare for something that will happen naturally, yet there is no training on how to actually parent a child." He took a parenting workshop years ago and said, "learning how to deal with conflict changed his family's dynamic.”

"All of us need a little help parenting," Haggerty added. "It's a tough job and we didn't get the instruction manual when our kids were born." The programs recommended by Haggerty and his co-authors are effective with a wide range of families from diverse demographics. They all are based on the Social Development Model, which focuses on: fostering opportunities, skills, rewards for positive social behaviors, bonding, and clear expectations for behavior.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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