The Mother-Child Relationship Builds Brain Chemistry

A Child’s brain chemistry, including his capacity for learning, his ability to regulate his emotions, and his inclination for healthy social connection, is profoundly influenced by relationship to his mother. A child who receives attentive, nurturing care from a loving mother during his formative years is more likely to become mentally healthy as he matures.

Beginning in pregnancy, a mother’s health habits and temperament are influencing the physical and emotional development of her child. Through her uterus, a mother transmits nutrients, as well as toxins, to her unborn child. A good diet and healthy lifestyle provide building blocks for healthy brain development. On the other hand, alcohol and drug use during pregnancy can contribute to future developmental and cognitive difficulties for affected children.

Immediately after birth, the child begins to learn from his mother how to cope with life. If he experiences discomfort from hunger or bodily eliminations, his plaintive cries prompt comforting care and attention. This is a cycle repeated over and over again in healthy mother-child interaction. The child’s brain comes to expect that stressful events and accompanying emotional upsets can and will be calmed. These experiences form the basis for emotional regulation when the child faces normal and unexpected upsets later in life.

During the first year of life, care that is reliable and safe develops in a child the capacity for secure attachment. When a baby’s cuteness and dependence is paired with a mother’s warmth and capacity for nurturing, powerful emotional bonds are formed. Each time a baby is held, played with, or talked to, new circuits develop in the brain. The child learns to interpret facial expressions and vocal tones. The repeated rhythm of their relating builds onto the brain mental structures upon which future relationships and social connections are made.

The second year of life is a time of testing boundaries, learning to process language, and finding out how to negotiate social situations. As the child becomes mobile and explores his environment, an attentive parent delights in and reinforces positive behavior, and redirects the child away from situations that could be dangerous or inappropriate. Through playful engagement, baby talk, and endless repetition, a child learns to verbalize and communicate his needs. By observing a parent’s social interactions and being supervised in safe play activities, a child learns the complex rules of polite and satisfying social interaction. Through repetition of the above scenarios, neural pathways and habits are formed.

How the child feels about himself and the important people in his life is profoundly influenced by the quality of the mother-child relationship. Similarly, a child learns how to perceive the world around him or her, whether it be as dependable, inconsistent, or threatening, through the eyes of his  attending parent. Normal and secure parent-child attachment provides a healthy environment for emotional development and regulation. Any factors that interfere with this relationship, such as maternal illness, anxiety, or depression, can have a lasting impact on the child. Mothers need to take care of themselves and enjoy their early years with their children  in order to raise the healthiest of children.

Author: Daniel J. De Witt, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist