Nurturing Helps Baby's Development, Studies Say

Filed under: In The News

A mom's caring can help diminish any prenatal stresses a baby may face once out in the world. Credit: Damon Dahlen, AOL


Go on, give your baby those few extra hugs and kisses today.

Not only will the added affection make you feel good, but two studies have strengthened the long-held beliefs that a parent's nurturing can greatly benefit a baby's mental development.

After-birth nurturing and care can conquer the impact from high levels of cortisol -- a naturally occurring stress hormone -- on a developing fetus, a new study finds. These high prenatal cortisol levels can lead to a child developing "shorter attention spans and weaker language and problem-solving skills," according a press release about the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center and published in Biological Psychiatry.

However, the researchers show that poor development caused by prenatal stresses can be surmounted if the mother provides her baby "sensitive care" and nurturing through the child's toddler stage.

Supported by grants from the March of Dimes and the National Institutes of Mental Health, the researchers tested for cortisol in the amniotic fluid from 125 pregnant women whose babies were at 17 weeks of gestation.

When the children were 17 months old, the study's authors assessed the children's cognitive development and their maternal attachment. Any cognitive development issues were "eliminated" in the kids with a secure relationship with their mom, the release says. Those with an insecure relationship demonstrated cognitive difficulties. The study will next examine the children when they reach 6 years.

"This is such refreshing news for mothers. Pregnancy is an emotional experience for many women, and there is already so much for mothers to be careful of and concerned about. It's a relief to learn that, by being good parents, they might 'buffer' their babies against potential setbacks," Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D. and the study's author, says in the press release.

In another study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, a parent's love and sensitivities are shown to help overcome inadequate language skills in children who develop autism.

While the report from University of Miami researchers acknowledges that "parenting styles are not considered as a cause for autism," the study discovered that a parent's warmth can strengthen an autistic child's language development, according to a release from the school.

The researchers measured 33 children every six months after they turned 18 months old. Some of the kids had older siblings with autism and were therefore considered to be at a higher risk of developing autism. According to the release, at the age of 3, 12 of the study's children received an autism-spectrum diagnosis.

Researchers determined that the "maternal sensitivity" that impacted a child's development included "warmth, responsiveness to the child's needs, respect for his or her emerging independence, positive regard for the child, and maternal structuring, which refers to the way in which a mother engages and teaches her child in a sensitive manner. For example, if a child is playing with colored rings, the mother might say, 'This is the green ring,' thus teaching the child about his environment," Daniel Messinger, the study's principal investigator, says in the release.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study's results strengthen the results from other studies indicating that "when children with autism increase their connection to the environment they do much better," Jason Baker, a postdoctoral fellow who assisted Messinger in the study, says in the release.

Related: Medicines for Autism

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.