Smiley babies give mother natural high

Laura Mappas
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Smiley babies give mother natural high

New research from the US suggests seeing your own baby smile activates pleasure receptors in the brain, which lead to quality care.

A natural high
Forget food and sex, a new US study says there's another way to get that much-sort-after natural high — and all it take is a little smile! Scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, reveal there is more to the baby buzz than just feelings of motherly love.

They say seeing your own baby smile — note this doesn't work with someone else's child — actually triggers the same pleasure receptors in the brain that are typically associated with food, sex and even drug addiction.

Lane Strathearn, an assistant professor of paediatrics from Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children's Hospital who originally hails from Queensland, likens mums' happy response to that of a "natural high". "We know [when a mother sees her baby smile] similar brain circuits are activated," he says. "Whether that feels the same as a shot of cocaine, I'm not sure."

Biological bond
Strathearn also says that this rush of love establishes a bond between the mother and child, and that it prompts the new mum to want to care for and protect her newborn.

"It makes sense biologically," Strathearn explains. "The sight of the mothers' own happy baby sends blood rushing to the part of the brain associated with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in addiction. This spike in dopamine gives the mums a natural kick, which in turn makes them want to nurture and care for their baby.

"We don't know whether this response is learned or innate. People tend to think that we're innately good parents, but it so happens that parenting in humans and in non-human primates had to be learned."

Future uses
Aside from giving mums a fuzzy, feel-good moment with their child, the research team also hopes this neurological finding may be the first step in understanding the mother-child attachment from a neural point of view.

"The relationship between mothers and infants is crucial for child development," Strathearn says. "[But] for whatever reason, in some cases that relationship doesn't develop normally. Neglect and abuse can result, with devastating effects on the child's development."

The research team suggests understanding this response may provide important information about the brains of abusive or addictive mothers and could lead to possible interventions.


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