Baby’s smiles and brain research

I’m having a grand ole’ time working hard for the company that husband and I own, but I miss being immersed in science on a daily basis.  My particular passions are math and chemistry – as they have been since high school!  So one thing I’ve been doing to make sure I get my dose of science is to add the Scientific American, Wired, and Science Magazine homepages to my firefox homepage tabs.  The Science Magazine one I linked up through my school’s library, so that I have full access, which is something I get to keep as an alumni – yay!

Anyhow, today I read this article on baby’s smiles and the mother-infant bond.  It was an interesting article about a study in which the researchers studied first-time mothers’ response to pictures of their 7-month old babies.  The moms had not seen the pictures before, and the researchers showed them to them while monitoring their brain response with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.  They found that the baby’s smiles triggered a strong response in the reward centers of the brain, and used this to theorize that the baby’s smile acts as a strong reward.  While I respect their efforts to study the brain with the scientific method, I can’t help but think “well, duh.”

I am curious about different questions.  Sure, none of us are surprised to hear that an infant’s smile is a reward for mom.  But how are the brain responses different in dad?  What about primary caretaker dads (like SAHDs) versus fathers who leave most of the baby raising to mom?  What about nannies that spend more time with the baby than mom?  Those are, to me, more interesting questions.

I feel a strong connection to the babies I care for, which grows in intensity usually based on how often I care for the baby and how long I’ve been working with that family.  In my own experiences, there have even been times when, spending 20 hours a week with the baby and observing his interactions with his mom as well, I’ve felt there were certain signals that I could read better than baby’s mom.

I would definitely be interested to see research not just on different parts of mom’s brain responses but also comparing this to brain responses in dad and other caretakers.  While I have no doubt that the mother-baby bond can be exceedingly strong, I think sometimes society assumes that only the mother can understand the baby that way, and implies that all mothers should.  Really though, in today’s society, families all do it differently, and those old assumptions don’t make much sense anymore.


2 thoughts on “Baby’s smiles and brain research

  1. This isn’t my research area, but it is my field, so I can provide a little bit of insight. You’ve picked up on an interesting issue in the field. Currently there’s an increasing emphasis on dads and other alternate caregivers in most phases of child & adolescent developmental research. But, so much actual research still involves only moms because it’s harder to get dads and ACs into the lab for testing. This is due to the obvious reasons (i.e., some families don’t have dads or ACs; or dads might work during the day when lab visits occur, so only mom is able to come in with the baby). I’ve found in my own work in an unrelated area, however, that dads’ and ACs’ data are more problematic than moms’ data. We’re not really sure why this is, and there are lots of possible explanations.

    So, in a nutshell… you’re thinking the same way the field of developmental science is thinking right now, but our ability to answer these questions is limited by practical and uncontrollable factors.

  2. Interesting! Thanks for the information, Dr. Addled. I wonder if some of these things would be less challenging to get data on in different geographical areas? I know, for example, that here in NYC, it’s often easier to meet a child’s AC than it is to meet their mom or dad. And certainly different parts of the country have more full-time dad caretakers. While it’s still much more common to see a woman (mom or otherwise) with small children in the city, fathers out for walks with their toddlers or babies even during the daytime are not an exceedingly unusual sight around here.

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