Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Dr. Daniel Stern, the psychiatrist who coined the term “motherese” to describe the unique way mothers communicate with babies, has died. The New York Times has more on his life and work:
“Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.
Dr. Stern, who did much of his research at what is now Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, drew inspiration from Jay S. Rosenblatt’s work with kittens at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Dr. Rosenblatt discovered that when he removed kittens from their cage, they made their way to a specific nipple of their mother’s even when they were as young as one day old. That finding demonstrated that learning occurs naturally at an exceptionally early age in a way staged experiments had not.
Dr. Stern videotaped babies from birth through their early years, and then studied the tapes second by second to analyze interactions between mother and child. He challenged the Freudian idea that babies go through defined critical phases, like oral and anal. Rather, he said, their development is continuous, with each phase layered on top of the previous one. The interactions are punctuated by intervals, sometimes only a few seconds long, of rest, solitude and reflection. As this process goes on, they develop a sense that other people can and will share in their feelings, and in that way develop a sense of self.
These interactions can underpin emotional episodes that occur years in the future. Citing one example in a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Stern told of a 13-month-old who grabbed for an electric plug. His alarmed mother, who moments before had been silent and loving, suddenly turned angry and sour. Two years later, the child heard a fairy tale about a wicked witch.
“He’s been prepared for that witch for years,” Dr. Stern said. “He’s already seen someone he loves turn into something evil. It’s perfectly believable for him. He maps right into it.”
Dr. Stern described such phenomena in 1985 in “The Interpersonal World of the Infant,” which the noted psychologist Stanley Spiegel, in an interview in The New York Times, called ‘the book of the decade in its influence on psychoanalytic theory.’”
Image: Mother and baby, via Shutterstock
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
An annual report from the non-profit organization Save the Children has ranked the United States 25th in the world in how the country cares for and supports mothers. The rankings are based on measures of everything from medical care to maternity leave. CNN.com has more:
That puts the U.S. right between Belarus and the Czech Republic. Norway is No. 1, just ahead of Iceland and Sweden.
The report’s ranking of 165 nations factors in measures of education, health and economic status as well as the health and nutrition of children.
“There’s still an awful lot that we need to do,” said Carolyn Miles, the president of Save The Children.
The U.S. has made strides with respect to better care for teen moms and also in electing more women to government positions, which the organization sees as an important measure of how society values women.
But it has to do more, Miles and others stress.
“We valorize parenthood and in particular, motherhood, while at the same time we offer very few supports,” said Robin Simon, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University.
So while the U.S. recognizes mothers for their incredibly important role as the primary caregivers to children, it still hasn’t done enough to help raise the kids.
It’s no secret: Raising a child is stressful and really expensive. A new mother needs a lot of help, Simon said, and other countries provide more government assistance than the United States does.
“Unlike other industrialized nations, we lack the kind of state-level protections and policies that would reduce some of that stress,” she said, speaking of “family-friendly entitlement programs” like universal health care.
Image: Mother and child, via Shutterstock.
Friday, March 16th, 2012
An innovative research study is under way at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to test whether the sounds of a mother’s heartbeat and voice can help premature infants better grow and thrive while they remain in hospital care. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, involved a professional recording studio at the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to allow neuroscientist Amir Lahav–who himself became the parent of premature twins five years ago–to measure whether the soothing sounds of their mothers can help premature babies develop.
Time magazine has a full report:
“The majority of babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation, even without a diagnosed brain injury, are likely to have learning, cognitive, social or sensory problems down the road,” says Lahav, who is now a pediatric researcher specializing in neonatal medicine and director of the Neonatal Research Lab at Brigham and Women’s. “That tells us that something we do is still not perfect.”
Could the lack of exposure to maternal sounds at a critical time period account at least in part for subsequent problems with language, attention deficit, learning disabilities, even autism? Lahav doesn’t think it’s far-fetched. “If a baby is in an isolated environment with only the sounds of machines and noise, it could possibly translate into problems with social behavior,” he says.
In the small study, Lahav and colleagues played recordings of moms who spoke, read or sang, to a group of 14 babies born between 26 to 32 weeks, for 45 minutes, four times a day. They found a significant reduction in problems such as apnea, in which breathing stops occasionally for more than 20 seconds, and bradycardia, in which the heart beat slows down significantly, when babies listened to their personalized MSS, or maternal sound stimulation. Think of it like iTunes for babies.
All babies had fewer adverse episodes when exposed to maternal sounds, but the measurement was only statistically significant in babies 33 weeks or older, according to the study. That might be because by 32 weeks, the auditory brain system is more developed, and the babies are able to process the sounds better. In general, Lahav hypothesizes, babies who hear their mothers may have reduced cortisol levels, which correlate with less stress.
Image: Recording studio, via Shutterstock.
Wednesday, March 7th, 2012
A new 15-year study shows that the ways parents play with their children at age 2 has a direct correlation with how well they perform academically throughout their school years. Researchers from Utah State University’s department of Family, Consumer and Human Development (FCHD) followed 229 children from low-income families. Mothers, fathers, or both parents played regularly with the children, and some of the children also received Early Head Start educational experiences.
The study isolated four types of play that had a direct effect on later academic performance:
- Encouraging and engaging in pretend play
- Presenting activities in an organized sequence of steps
- Elaborating on the pictures, words, and actions in a book or on unique attributes of objects
- Relating play activity or book text to the child’s experience
The role of each parent also was a factor. The researchers looked at two different family types, those who lived with biological fathers and those who didn’t. They found that in both these family situations, children perform better academically when mothers teach more during play with their toddlers. When live-in biological fathers teach during play with their toddlers, they make an additional positive contribution to their child’s 5th grade math and reading performance.
Image: Mother and daughter playing with blocks, via Shutterstock.