Effects Of Parenting Styles On Infant's Brain | A Research From Singapore

As a parent, I'm faced with constant dilemmas every day. I really want my children to be adventurous and courageous, but I also really want to keep them safe. These are real choices. So I've wondered, what kind of impact can these parenting choices have on the baby's development? [Anne Rifkin-Graboi, Head, Infancy and Early Childhood Research, NIE, NTU, Singapore]
A newborn's brain is developing quite rapidly in early life. I wanted to design a study that would allow us to look at if parenting would affect the infant's brain during this unique period of life.

When we first started looking at this, to my knowledge, there wasn't much on just differences in parenting and the infant's brain. So we really needed scans of babies' brains right after they were born, before they'd experienced really any parenting styles.

And then fortunately we had this great opportunity to take advantage of a much larger study, the Growing Up In Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes study.

In this study, these babies had already been scanned within the first few weeks of life. So we had a sort of baseline for brain development. We needed to follow those babies to six months, take another scan of their brain, and also observe differences in parenting style.

So we brought in the moms and babies when the babies were six months of age, and we observed the parenting behavior in the laboratory. What I'm really looking at is how attentive and responsive is a parent to the infant's signals?

We had 20 babies, and we rated the mother's behavior using a system of descriptive cards. Do they respond to what the infant is doing?

If the baby is reaching for something, does she let the child choose, or does she choose? 

These interactions are really small, and sometimes they're really quick. But over time, they add together to complete a picture of what the relationship is like.

We had looked to see differences in parenting style. Now we needed to see how do these parenting styles affect areas of the infant's brain?

And to do that, we needed to take the babies back into the MRI for their six-month scan. It's really hard to scan a baby. Because for a successful scan you need to stay still. And that's not something that comes naturally to infants. So to make it easier, babies are fed before so they fall asleep.

I went to my colleague Anqi Qiu, an expert in neural imaging, whose team processed the data. I was really excited to see what she had found.

Here is actually the structural image. And now you can see red dots showing up. That's where the hippocampus is. So this is just one baby, though, right? Yes, it is. But if you look at all the scans we have, you look at individuals, and they have a very similar pattern. This was really quite incredible.

The hippocampus, this area towards the middle of the brain, that differed according to parenting styles. The infants who had received less responsive caregiving, their hippocampi were a bit bigger.

This was surprising, because the hippocampus is really important to learning and to managing distress. So what it suggests is that the babies were having to manage their own stress, because they're not getting quite as much support from their parents.

Even at six months, these everyday differences in parenting were actually linked to observable differences in the structure of the infant brain. To my knowledge, that was the first time a group had seen this.

When a parent is attentive and responsive, the baby is learning that the world is a safe place, and that frees up time for them to explore their environment. When a baby doesn't get those same signals from the parent, the baby may need to prioritize thinking about safety and comfort rather than exploration.

I'm the last person to say that parenting is easy. None of us do this perfectly.

What is important is that the overall experience that the child is receiving is one of attentive and responsive care. And I think, for parents, that's reassuring.

Source: Netflix.

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