And Mommy…talk BABY to me!

Monday, August 31, 2009 at Monday, August 31, 2009
Anyone that has ever seen a woman interact with a baby can attest to one fact, one certainty in life, if you will…women baby talk to babies. Period. I don’t know what it is, but something just makes us want to raise the pitch of our voice and sound like our tongue was just stuck to the icy flagpole outside. Oh and in case you didn’t catch the title, it is taken from Poison’s “Talk Dirty To Me” song…and yes, you are welcome for it now being stuck in your head! And if you are too young to know who Poison is consider yourself lucky.

But why-oh-why do we talk to babies like that? I mean, babies learn language from those that speak to them and will talking like a baby to your baby impair their language development?

Many, many studies have shown that babies prefer baby talk, aka motherese, parentese or infant-directed talk, to normal plain old adult talk. Baby talk not only has a higher pitch, it also is typically more rhythmic, slower, shorter and more exaggerated than adult talk. Baby talk has also been shown to facilitate the bond between the infant and caregiver and assist in language development and communication between the adult and the baby. So clearly it has been shown to be beneficial.

In 2007, an article published in Brain and Cognition looked at what is going on when an infant hears “baby talk”. The researchers used Electroencephalography (EEG) (which is just a fancy schmancy way of recording electrical activity of the brain when its neurons are firing) and they looked at heart rate using 39, 9-month old infants while they listened to baby talk. The baby talk differed in which emotion it conveyed, i.e. love, surprise, fear, etc. They found that the greatest brain activity was in the frontal lobe (the executive, decision maker, problem-solver) and the highest EEG activity was associated with fear, then love/comfort, and so on. Despite the affect presented (i.e. fear, comfort) all of the infants’ heart rate decelerated. Another interesting finding is that babies who are reported as more temperamental showed greater right frontal lobe activation in response to baby talk expressing fear. Previous research has shown that at rest, babies that exhibit greater fear responses to novel stimuli have greater activity in their right frontal lobe at rest compared to infants that do not exhibit these fearful responses.

There is quite a bit of research that shows infants have greater at rest right frontal lobe activity and this will influence the personality of the infant, and into adulthood. This article is good at showing that the content of the talk is also important. If the affect is fear, surprise, or other “negative” emotions, it will affect activity in the frontal lobe differently than affect of comfort, love, etc.

Of course now comes the chicken and the egg aspect. Are fearful, more anxious babies that way because of their brain morphology? Or do their parents create the brain to wire in a way that makes them more anxious? Based on this article, even if you are baby talking, if you are talking in an affect of fear the baby is able to discern that. Or does brain wiring of this nature occur in utero (of course it does!). If you are an overly anxious person, or have encountered a high stress, or fearful situation, your fetus is sure to respond accordingly.

Any thoughts?

Santesso DL, Schmidt LA, Trainor LJ. Frontal brain electrical activity (EEG) and heart rate in response to affective infant-directed (ID) speech in 9-month-old infants. Brain Cogn. 2007 Oct;65(1):14-21. Epub 2007 Jul 30.

Mommy Needs Prozac

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at Wednesday, August 19, 2009
With all of the excitement and exhaustion (for the parents) of a new baby, one concern is all too often overlooked…maternal depression. Women are raised to believe that having a child is the most joyous occasion. Yes you are tired. But you are also so elated at this tiny little bundle of joy and life couldn’t be better, right? Well, maybe. I will admit that when I was pregnant there was a part of me that was a bit concerned that since I had the propensity for depression (family history, and once needing medication for it myself) I would be a fine candidate for post partum depression. Or that I would even encounter prenatal depression. My son is 7 months old and (so far) I have not experienced true post partum depression. But I know many women that have and I think it is just now being truly talked about and assessed.

Honestly I really thank Brooke Shields for bringing this issue to light (and on a certain level Tom Cruise and his “vitamins and exercise can take care of depression” rant…anyone else longing for the days of Top Gun?). She was open and honest about her experience. But what does it mean to have post partum depression? We know Mom isn’t herself, it affects the way she interacts with her baby, husband, family, job, everyday activities…but what about the effects on the kid(s)? A review paper published in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review (2006) did a fabulous job of taking a lot of research and highlighting some of the deleterious consequences of untreated maternal depression.

Here are some interesting statistics:
1. During adulthood, women are almost twice as likely as men to have depression, and
onset is usually in the mid-20’s (childrearing years)
2. Approximately 20% of pregnant women experience depression (and tend to seek less
prenatal care)
3. Postpartum depression affects 5-25% of women

So how does prenatal depression/stress a fetus? Glad you asked. Many studies have shown that prenatal depression/stress undermines good prenatal care. These women do not seek basic prenatal check-ups, engage in more alcohol and drug abuse, gain less weight, smoke cigarettes more, and feel more stressed. The increase in feelings of stress and depression in turn affect the quality of cortisol (the primary human stress hormone) release from the mother. Depression and stress both increase the release of cortisol. Elevated levels of maternal cortisol affect the growing fetus by: altering the fetus’ development of the HPA axis (makes the HPA axis more responsive to stress), and higher rates of premature labor and slower growth of the fetus. Prolonged or elevated HPA axis activation has been shown to interfere with learning and memory in children.

But what if there is postpartum depression? According to recent research, postpartum depression may interfere with the cognitive and language development of infants. Infants of depressed mothers have deficits in vagal tone measures (vagus nerve activates facial expressions, vocalization and maintains slower heart rates). These infants vocalize less and show muted facial expressions which could interfere with the depressed mothers’ ability to interpret the needs of the infant. Maternal depression also appears to alter brain activity in the frontal lobes. Using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, infants and toddlers of depressed mothers have decreased activation in left frontal brain activation and more right frontal activation. Activation in the left frontal region is associated with positive emotions, whereas right frontal activation is associated with negative emotions. The negative emotional responses would thus interfere with the infants’ ability and motivation to process and interpret external stimuli (i.e. learning). As a side note, most women do experience postpartum blues (I know I did) but this does not appear to interfere with the development of the child, and does not last as long.

Honestly this article is HUGE with vast amounts of information. I have definitely not done justice to how much maternal depression can interfere with the social, emotional, and cognitive development of infants. What is most important is not IF a mother is experiencing depression, but HOW will she, her family and her community respond. No one, especially a pregnant woman or one that just gave birth, should feel isolated and embarrassed for their depression. A mothers’ ability to care for her kids is the most important part of this equation. Therefore, if medication aids in allowing the mother to be more interactive and respond better to her kids’ needs, which in turn allow for the child to develop in a more enriched environment, I am all for it. However, if a woman can find other methods to deal with her depression I think that is great too! Medication doesn't have to be the only solution. But if it works, go for it.

Of course, it would be interesting to see what role Dad plays in this. If Dad compensates for Mom’s lack of interaction, will it offset some of these negative outcomes? What if the baby attends daycare? Will the interaction from the caregivers be enough?

Any other thoughts?

Sohr-Preston SL, Scaramella LV. Implications of timing of maternal depressive symptoms for early cognitive and language development. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2006 Mar;9(1):65-83. Review.

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