Early Childhood

Study: Hugs, Encouragement Help Kids’ Brains Grow

By Julie Rasicot — February 03, 2012 1 min read
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Raising children through the early years can be a time of frustration, as our kids daily test our patience and ability to keep the hugs and positive words flowing.

Who knew that our support actually can make a difference in how our children’s brains develop?

But that may actually be the case, according to new research by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The researchers found that school-aged kids whose moms nurtured them when they were younger developed a larger hippocampus, which is a key region of the brain that’s important to learning, memory and response to stress. The research was published online Jan. 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

The brain-imaging study found that mentally healthy kids who had been nurtured well had a hippocampus almost 10 percent larger than children whose mothers were not as nurturing.

Studies have shown that nurturing can impact brain development in animals, and that kids raised in nurturing environments are healthier and do better in school. But this study offers the first “solid evidence linking a nurturing parent to changes in brain anatomy in children,” according to the university’s website.

“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” says Joan L. Luby, the lead author and a professor of child psychiatry.

The study examined the brain images of 92 children ages 7 to 10 who had participated in an earlier study of preschool depression conducted by the researchers about 10 years ago. That study involved mentally healthy preschoolers and those suffering from depression and other psychiatric disorders.

Although the study mostly evaluated the nurturing of biological mothers, the researchers say that nurturing provided by fathers, grandparents and other primary caregivers is likely to have the same impact on brain development.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.