New mothers across the world show similar brain signals and behavioral responses after hearing their children cry, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 23.
Researchers examined the behavior of healthy, first-time mothers from 11 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America as they interacted with their babies at home, each of whom were between 5 and 6 months old, CNN reports.
On average, mothers of all nationalities responded to their children's cries within five seconds and preferred to calm their babies by holding or talking to them. MRI scans of the mothers' brains revealed heightened activity in the areas of caregiving, speech and movement.
The researchers also compared the brain activity of two additional groups: 43 first-time mothers in the U.S. and 44 more-experienced mothers in China. The U.S. mothers were exposed to sounds of their own infant crying or making other noises, while the Chinese mothers listened to various infant sounds from a database. The MRI scans for both groups showed activity relating to movement, grabbing, talking, sound processing and caregiving.
Both groups of mothers exhibited heightened activity in the "readiness" and "planning" areas of the brain, according to New York University neuroscientist Robert Froemke. While Froemke was not involved in this particular research, he has studied oxytocin, which is believed to play an important role in mother-infant bonding and cause moms to react quicker to their child's needs.
"The current study contributes to the existing literature on the human mother's brain by identifying the common brain regions that are sensitive to baby cry sounds across cultures," said psychologist Pilyoung Kim, an associate professor at the University of Denver. "This is an important step toward future studies to better understand common, as well as unique responses that mothers in different cultures show to their own babies, in their brains and behaviors."
Marc Bornstein, the author of the study and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's chief of child and family research, says a better understanding of normal behaviors makes it easier to identify abnormal behaviors such as maltreatment.
"Infant cry excites some adults, mothers included, to respond with empathy and care but others with neglect or even abuse…" he said. "...We hope this research will spur others to study brain responses associated with non-normal variations in parenting, such as mothers who maltreat."
Mother's reactions to their infant's cries is an important area of research, since early neglect may have an impact on that child's brain development and behavior later in life.
On Oct. 23, The Telegraph published a side-by-side photo of the brains of two 3-year-old children, with one clearly smaller than the other. The primary difference between the two children was the amount of attention they'd received.
Professor Allan Schore, a neurologist at UCLA, told The Telegraph that babies' brains "literally [require] positive interaction between mother and infant."
Schore says lack of care in the first two years of a person's life prevents genes for certain types of brain function from expressing themselves. That neurological deprivation can be permanent, and is linked to an increased chance of committing crime or becoming addicted to drugs.
"Early intervention," where a nurse comes by regularly to instruct a new mother on how to care for her child, is an effective solution in preventing developmental defects caused by early-life deprivation.
The U.S. has had early intervention programs in different places across the country for about 15 years, according to the The Telegraph. The longest running program has resulted in half the amount of arrests, 80 percent fewer convictions and a significant reduction in drug abuse when compared to the children of "at risk" mothers who don't receive early intervention.