Mothers: science’s new rock stars?

Mother’s Day is typically a time to pay tribute to our own, individual mothers, or at least the person who we had a personal, mother-like relationship with. On an individual basis, our mothers of course had their strengths and their weaknesses, their days of sorrow and days of peace. But why don’t we take a different road today and take a look at Mothering.

Developmental research has come out with some amazing findings about mothering and how it helps us make that journey from cooing infant to stand-on-your-own-two-feet adult. Consider some of these incredible findings – things that mothering people do without even having to think about it:

  • In the 1980’s, Stanford researchers discovered that the cooing and babbling that mothers do while leaning over their infants wasn’t just “cute baby talk.” In fact, they are speaking a special developmental language the Stanford team called Motherese. Motherese includes special tonal changes and heavy vowel emphasis that helps babies pay attention to particular sounds that will shape their own aquisition of language. Pretty amazing, right? Not only that, but motherese comes in different language versions around the world. So the next time you feel the urge to bah-bah-bah or nu-nu-nu, go ahead and help that baby learn to talk.
  • Psychologists in the past believed that our capacity for long-term remembering didn’t develop until around the age of three. But research by DeCasper and colleagues at the University of North Carolina showed that babies can recognize the sound of stories read in their mother’s voices even before birth. In their landmark study, the researchers had expectant mothers read a Dr. Seuss story out loud several times during the last trimester of development. Following birth, they tested infants’ abilities to recognize their particular story by reading several stories and measuring their responsiveness with special techniques. They found that infants clearly responded the most to the story that they had heard while still in the womb. They actually learned not just the sound of their mothers’ voice, but the particular story she read. So, the prenatal bond between mother and infant is real and measurable, and it puts a whole new definition on what they mean by the advice “read to your child early.”
  • Finally, there’s Rapproachement, a French word meaning “bridging back” or returning. Margaret Mahler found an incredible “script” that mothers and children play out around 15 to 24 months that helps the child venture out into the world safely and securely. How does it work? It starts when the baby is able to crawl or toddle off of mother’s lap. The baby crawls a few feet away, then looks back toward mother’s face. If mother gives a reassuring smile or hears mother’s relaxed voice, baby will continue to feel secure to explore. Sometimes babies and mothers turn it into a game in which a toddler slowly moves away, then rushes back toward mother giggling. The giggle stands for, “will I be safe if I go out and explore this area?” and mother’s response says, “you can feel secure right now” or “it isn’t safe right now.” After several rounds, the mother’s response teaches the toddler how to read the environment for safety. You may recognize this game played out again when your teenager goes to the mall the first few times alone with friends and “tests out” whether or not the situation is safe via a phone call home to ask to stay out an hour longer.

It’s no wonder mothers could be considered the new rock stars of science, and at least, deserve credit for the work they do on instinct that bring us up to adulthood.