What Science Says About Mom

Some scientific studies show what most of us have already known.

• Good moms have smarter kids. School-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life have brains with a larger hippocampus, a key structure important to learning, memory and response to stress, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

• Being an empathetic mom goes a long way. In a long-term study published in the journal Psychological Science, psychologists found that even among groups that would have higher rates of chronic illness in adulthood, adults who had nurturing mothers in childhood fared better in physical health in midlife.

• Attentive moms help keep kids off drugs. A strong mother-child bond in childhood, especially in the first three years of life, develops the brain chemistry that can help people resist drug and alcohol addiction later in life. The research, conducted in Australia, found that some people’s lack of resilience to addictive behaviors may be linked to poor development of their oxytocin systems. The antidote? A loving and nurturing mom, of course.

• Moms teach their children without even trying. Scientists have discovered that babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language. This finding indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, earlier than previously thought.

• Mom’s voice is as comforting as a hug. A simple phone call from mom can calm frayed nerves by sparking the release of a powerful stress-quelling hormone, according to researchers. The study, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looked at a group of 7- to 12-year-old girls who were challenged to answer math questions in front of a panel of strangers. A third of the girls were comforted by their mothers in person with a hug or pat on the back, a third were given a neutral video to watch, and a third were allowed to talk to their mom on the phone. The results were dramatic: the children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same positive hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone.

• Sometimes, less Mom is more. When you sit on the floor to play with your child, there’s more going on than just a game. In a study that looked at the dynamics of play, researchers found that the more moms tried to control the content and pace of the game, more children pulled away. Children in the study also expressed more negative feelings toward their mother when the mother was highly directive. For example, during play with her child, a highly directive mother might make her toddler put the plastic cow in the toy barn through the barn’s door instead of through its window. While parents often think they are helping their children by correcting them, they are limiting the children’s creativity and taking the fun out of the game.