When mum is happy, her brain syncs with her baby's brain a new study has found
Postpartum is a vital time when it comes to mum and baby bonding.
However, this time can also be stressful to new mothers, between hormonal fluctuations, trying to figure out feeding and managing on very little sleep.
Postpartum depression, to a varying degree, happens to as many 10-15 percent of women during their first year of motherhood.
We know that emotional communication between parents and their children is crucial during early life, but few studies have been able to show just how vital this emotional connection is during these first few days, weeks and months.
brain imaging study has shown that mothers' and babies' brains work together as a 'mega-network' by synchronising brain waves when they interact. The research, published in the journal NeuroImage, showed that the level of connectivity of the brain waves varies according to the mum's emotional state. As in; when mothers express more positive emotions their brain becomes much more strongly connected with their baby's brain. And this, in turn, may help the baby to learn and its brain to develop.
To be fair, many experts would argue this is not all that surprising.
As a social species, humans share emotional states with others. And this study shows how emotions change the connection between two individuals at a neural level. In fact, the researchers were quick to point out that their findings apply to many other types of affiliative bond, including between couples, close friends, and siblings, where each person is highly attuned to the other. The strength of the effect is likely to depend on how well the two people know each other and the level of trust between them.
Using a method called dual electroencephalograhy (EEG, this study looked at brain signals in both mums and babies while they were interacting with each other. They found that mums and babies tend to synchronise their brain waves - an effect known as interpersonal neural connectivity - particularly in the frequency of 6-9 hertz, the infant alpha range.
Mothers and babies tend to spend a lot of time together in a positive emotional state, in which their brains are very connected. The study found that positive interaction, with lots of eye contact, enhances the ability of mother and infant brains to operate as a single system. This promotes efficient sharing and flow of information between mother and infant.
By looking at the qualities and structure of the interpersonal neural connectivity using a mathematical method of network analysis, the researchers could see how information flowed within each separate brain, and also how the two brains operated together as a network.
"From our previous work, we know that when the neural connection between mothers and babies is strong, babies are more receptive and ready to learn from their mothers," said Dr Vicky Leong in the University of Cambridge's Department of Psychology, who led the study. "At this stage of life, the baby brain has the ability to change significantly, and these changes are driven by the baby's experiences. By using a positive emotional tone during social interactions, parents can connect better with their infants, and stimulate development of their baby's mental capacity."
The results also suggest that babies of depressed mothers may show less evidence of learning because of a weakened neural connection between mother and infant. Mothers who experience a persistently low or negative mental state due to clinical depression tend to have less interaction with their baby. Their speech is often flatter in tone, they make much less eye contact, and they are less likely to respond when their baby tries to get their attention.
"Our emotions literally change the way that our brains share information with others - positive emotions help us to communicate in a much more efficient way," said Dr Leong. "Depression can have a powerfully negative effect on a parent's ability to establish connections with their baby. All the social cues that normally foster connection are less readily available to the child, so the child doesn't receive the optimal emotional input it needs to thrive."