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To be a well-adjusted adult, it helps to be a well-loved baby

July 26, 2010|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

Feeling stressed-out? Anxious? Overly sensitive to things other people say? You can blame your mother. (As if you weren't doing that already.)

A growing body of scientific evidence points to the long-lasting effects of maternal nurturing while children are young. One study found that adults who said they felt more “warmth and closeness” with their parents when they were kids were less likely to become alcoholics, develop ulcers or have high blood pressure or heart disease. In animals, rat pups that were doted on by their mothers grew up to be less stressful adults (based on the levels of stress hormones in their blood).

Now comes even stronger evidence that early interactions between mother and child can influence mental health well into adulthood.

Researchers from Duke University, the Harvard School of Public Health and Brown University dug up records from the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, a study from the 1960s that tracked pregnant women and their children. When the babies were 8 months old, psychologists observed the interactions between moms and kids and rated the “level of affection” on a scale from “negative” to “extravagant.” More than 30 years later, the researchers tracked down some of those former babies and gave them tests to assess how well they were functioning emotionally.

Based on results from 482 offspring, the researchers found that those who were most showered with motherly love were less anxious, less hostile and generally less distressed than their peers who got low or normal amounts of maternal affction.

The results were not surprising given the findings of previous studies. But the researchers said their conclusions were more convincing because 1) the degree of maternal warmth was measured objectively by trained scientists (as opposed to relying on adults’ recollections of their childhoods), and 2) the study measured the same people as babies and again as adults in their 30s.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why those early interactions between mothers and babies prove to be so influential. Perhaps it’s that kids who feel secure with their parents have an easier time making friends and therefore function better as adults. Biologically speaking, a baby basking in maternal affection might  experience a change in brain chemistry that permanently alters the way he or she processes stress hormones.

Whatever the mechanism,  “it is striking that a brief observation of level of maternal warmth in infancy is associated with distress in adult offspring 30 years later,” the researchers concluded.

The findings were published online Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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