Is encouraging small children good for brain development?

“Stop babying him!” “Let him do it himself!” What about encouraging and reassuring young children instead? According to a study carried out at the University of Washington and published in PNAS, very young children who have been supported, praised and coddled by their mother have brains that are better structured for learning and for handling stressful situations later on. To what extent does maternal support, beginning in childhood, influence a child's brain development?

Aside from a few mentions in longitudinal studies, the effects of positive maternal support have not been demonstrated in humans (though it has been shown in animals, particularly rats. Determining the impact of support on the early development of the hippocampus and seeing if there are effects on the development of the brain from school age to the early teens: these are the aims of the research led by Joan L. Luby and colleagues in the departments of psychiatry, psychology and brain sciences, and radiology. 127 children participated in 3 waves of MRI at school age and in their early teens.

To categorize the levels of support, the researchers observed mother-child interactions in a specific context: While the mother was concentrating on a task, the preschoolers were asked to wait (8 minutes) before opening a gift they had just received. According to the mother’s ability to encourage her stressed child (the situation is designed to be frustrating), the mother was categorized as being a “weak support”, “average support” or “strong support.” At school age, using another "stressful" situation (the child had to piece together a puzzle while blindfolded using the instructions from the parent who could see the pieces).

What do the brain scans show? The researchers found that the hippocampi of the most strongly supported children developed faster than those of weakly supported children; growth was two times faster in the first group! Moreover, the impact of maternal support was strongest in children ages 3 to 5; it is less marked in school-age children and adolescents.

According to Joan L. Luby, child psychiatrist, the results of the study provide the “first evidence of the long term effects of maternal support on the development of the hippocampus.” The increased brain plasticity in very young children makes them more sensitive to/affected by their first experiences. According to the authors, it is essential for preschool children to receive special attention and encouragement.
Source: Joan L. Luby and coll., “Preschool is a sensitive period for the influence of maternal support on the trajectory of hippocampal development”, in PNAS, vol.113, n°20, 17 May 2016.

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