Have you ever heard your baby cry and thought, "I can't take this anymore?" Or maybe you see your baby start to fuss, and you break out in chills, knowing what's about to come. Apparently, this is pretty common, and it's due to how your baby's distress affects your brain.
There is a complex, reciprocal relationship between your baby's cries and cues, and the way your brain responds. For mothers, this response is universal, reported a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States in 2017. A study of nearly 700 new, first-time mothers from every continent but Antarctica found that mothers' physiological responses to their babies in distress or even their babies' mirth and joy mirror each other, no matter the culture.
Whether their laugh is making you smile, or their cries are making you wince, this study used MRI brain scan technology to show that our brains all respond in kind to our children. Researchers wrote that "new mothers, hearing their own infant’s distress, and more experienced mothers, hearing infant cries, generally activate the SMA (supplementary motor area) associated with the intention to move and speak, inferior frontal regions involved in the production of speech, and superior temporal regions linked to processing auditory stimuli." In layman's terms, hearing your baby cry (when you are not in a crisis state) makes you want to pick them up and look at them, speak to and comfort them.
I contacted psychologist Dr. Sherrie Campbell, and she tells Romper that how your baby's distress affects your brain has to do with something called "mirror" neurons. She says that these neurons "mirror emotions back and forth from parent to child."
Our brains register their discomfort with lightning speed, which is why we sometimes feel ourselves moving toward our children before we've even made the conscious decision to do so. "When our baby is upset, we feel distress with them and for them," Campbell says. "We feel compelled to soothe them to decrease their stress, which in turn helps to decrease out stress." The relationship is in some ways a type of symbiosis.
That relationship can be daunting, to say the least. Especially when your child is inconsolable. There were times when my son's reflux was at its peak, and my inability to calm him down felt like a physical weight on my shoulders. I became nauseated and dizzy from what I thought was some unique form of stress only found in my stooped, postpartum body... but in reality was just the effects of the excess of adrenaline released in response to my son's distress. Knowing that my pain was somehow an evolutionary trigger might have made me feel less alone, and more like I was a part of the great warp and weft of motherhood throughout time.
Tiiu Lutter, MA, Director of Development with Child Guidance Resource Centers, tells Romper that the physical aspect triggered by the brain is very real. She says that "From the very beginning, mothers are tuned to the sound of their baby’s cry, when a baby cries, the mother’s milk will 'let down' so that she can soothe and feed her baby. That comes directly from the brain response."
The responses are far reaching. "A distressed baby can also make parents exhausted, and exhausted brains are brains that don’t function at their best," she says. "Exhausted parents can be irritable, impatient, tearful; just think of them as being giant mirrors of their baby." The mirror idea is consistently reiterated by the science and the literature, but also the experts. She continues, saying, "The baby causes exhaustion, and exhaustion depletes serotonin and disrupts biorhythms that parents need to be even-keeled."
Your brain is constantly reacting to your child, so if you feel overwhelmed, try to give yourself grace. It is probably the hardest thing for parents to do, but ultimately one of the most important.
"Neurobiology of culturally common maternal responses to infant cry"
Marc H. Bornstein, Diane L. Putnick, Paola Rigo, Gianluca Esposito, James E. Swain, Joan T. D. Suwalsky, Xueyun Su, Xiaoxia Du, Kaihua Zhang, Linda R. Cote, Nicola De Pisapia, and Paola Venuti
PNAS November 7, 2017 114 (45) E9465-E9473; first published October 23, 2017 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1712022114
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, psychologist
Tiiu Lutter, MA, Director of Development with Child Guidance Resource Centers