How do mothers feel with their children?
Question to the brain
Kathryn Abel, Institute of Brain, Behavior and Mental Health, University of Manchester: Mother's love is a wise kind of love and more than just being in love. Love is a consequence of our social nature. Mother's love has to be so strong to keep the child alive. Not only do young children need complex care to survive, they also need a lot of care in order for their brains to develop properly. This includes touch, closeness, and appropriate emotional and intellectual responses and suggestions from their caregivers.
To meet these needs, emotional and social intelligence is required. Mothers have to recognize feelings and be able to react to them well, always have an eye on what is happening around them and the child, anticipate what the child will need next and plan carefully in advance.
Maternal love helps them achieve all of this and feel good about themselves - it works as a social manipulation of maternal physiology. Maternal hormones, some of which are stimulated through contact with the baby, promote the feelings we call maternal love: the feeling that we would do anything for the loved one, the desire to be selfless towards them, and happiness and the security we feel when we are with him.
Prolactin, for example, is released when breastfeeding and acts like a large dose of Valium - you feel calm and safe. The cuddle or love hormone oxytocin is also produced during breastfeeding and during childbirth and also has a very calming effect.
When a woman becomes a mother, hormones and learning processes in dealing with her child also change a lot in her brain. The olfactory cortex, for example, already enlarges significantly during pregnancy. Smell is extremely important in creating bonds. It strengthens emotional memories in the hippocampus, which are important for loving relationships with your own child.
A brain region that plays a particularly important role in recognizing and processing emotions is the superior temporal gyrus in the temporal lobe. Especially with mothers who react sensitively to their children and take good care of them, their own child activates this region very strongly.
The reward system encourages mothers to engage with their children by rewarding caring with feelings of happiness. These make up a large part of what we call motherly love. The regions of the brain that add to the high in drug addicts - for example, the nucleus accumbens - also become active when a mother sees her child. The release of dopamine is found to be satisfactory and oxytocin reduces fear reactions in the amygdala. Together this results in an intoxicating combination of wellbeing and love.
An interesting and important question is what happens when this process does not work so well, so the classic motherly love is not so strong. About 20 percent of newborn mothers show decreased sensitivity to their children. Their response in the reward system and the activity in the superior temporal gyrus are weaker than in other mothers when they see their own child. Such mothers may find it difficult to deal with childish displeasure or stressful situations, for example. You may then become upset yourself or withdraw from the child. Or they simply do not notice their child's signals sufficiently or misinterpret them. Decreased maternal sensitivity can have many different causes, and understanding and considering them in order to help such mothers is important.
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