There were many reasons I chose to stay at home with my babies; everything from finances to my anxious personality needing to be near them all the time as they took their first steps in life. Honestly, while I knew it was probably beneficial to them to have a stay-at-home parent, I never thought about how it could manifest as changes to the structure or responsiveness of their brain. Now that I know about how being a stay-at-home mom changes your baby's brain though, I'm glad I was able to do that for them.
There's a lot of research on this topic, and understandably, a lot of it is pretty biased against a mother's right and desire to work. Wading through the literature, pinpointing the bias and scope of the arguments made, takes many hours of perusal. However, there is real, unvarnished, unbiased research conducted within the past decade that shows how babies benefit from having a stay-at-home parent. Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University Schools of Social Work highlighted the benefits of a close parent-child relationship by explaining how the loving care of parents is difficult to replicate with other caregivers because it's typically parents who care for and love their children with the deepest levels of devotion. This tight bond encourages healthy development in babies and children by giving them confidence in their social structure.
Waldfogel wrote, "The care that young children receive from their parents and carers lays the foundation not just for their physical growth and health, but also for their cognitive and emotional growth and development." She cited research that showed a shift in children's behavior as women entered the workforce, but also showed that there was a noticeable benefit to the children of parents who were given extended leave after a baby was born. She is quick to remind readers, however, that it's dependent upon the level of connectedness and quality of parenting the mother provides. If the stay-at-home mom isn't the best parent, it isn't the best option.
We now know it affects their development, but how does being a stay-at-home mom change your baby's brain? The field of science that much of this research falls into includes two very specific fields known as physiological psychiatry and neuropsychiatry. They study the physical, neurological changes and alterations in brain patterns, chemistry, and even the minutia of regional size and electrical input in regards to mental health and development. I spoke to physiopsych researcher Edward Bishop from Edinburgh, and picked his brain to see if anything truly changes with a stay-at-home mom.
Bishop tells Romper that there are definite changes in a baby's brain when there's a stay-at-home parent. This is especially true if the stay-at-home parent is emotionally supported by their partner. He says, "There's some interesting research being completed that shows that a stable, loving caregiver that's with the baby more often than they're not with their baby, imbues in the neonate a sense of security which can bat off restlessness and stress." He says that this early sense of love and security has long-term cognitive impact, preparing them for dynamic social interaction, as well as giving them a shield against negative self-thought.
He also points to research that shows that when the parents support each other during this time, the baby's brain shows increased triangular capacity. That means that they can track their awareness between more than one person earlier in their life. He says that while most of the research shows that it's irrespective of which parent stays home, science has proven that some mothers have a distinct advantage — breastfeeding. Bishop notes that there is documented research that extended breastfeeding alters a baby's brain chemistry, and that children who are breastfed for the first year of life are less likely to suffer adolescent depression.
But Bishop also iterates that much of this research is fairly new, and while it points to a governmental failure in supporting parents who wish to stay home with their children, it doesn't paint the whole picture. Not all of us can stay home, as two working parents are often essential to keeping the family on track, and some mothers and fathers don't want to stay home — that's OK, too. It's an individual choice, and the research is still nascent. So as long as you love and nurture your kid, I think their brain changes will be just fine.