Could Bad Mothering Be (Literally) All in Your Head?


healthy_brain_pet_scanWhat if bad mothering — the truly shocking, sickening kind, the kind that leads to child abuse or even worse — was something you were hardwired for?

Some researchers say they think it is. According to this Times of London story, neurologist Craig Kinsley believes that the brain creates a new cluster of cells during pregnancy that appear to be related to good or bad parenting behaviors. These “maternal neurons” get switched on after birth — and too few lead to bad mothering behaviors.

“We believe that a certain number of these ‘maternal neurons’ need to be ‘switched on’ for good mothering to take place,” Kinsley told the Times. “Our research showed that the mothers with fewer than this number of ‘maternal neurons’ tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young.”

Kinsley’s research has, so far, been limited to rodents. However, Yale University researchers are studying the areas of the brain that they believe drive good and bad mothering. Neuroscientist James Swain says their research has identified certain areas of the brain in which the level of neuron activity and measures of ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ parenting are correlated.

Critics say is sort of thing can unfairly stigmatize new mothers who may already be struggling, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Others believe that it can help target support resources toward those at highest risk. And scientists believe the brain is “plastic” — that is, as you learn new skills, your brain actually physically changes, just like your muscles change shape as you exercise. Therefore, having the “bad mother” brain isn’t the determining factor over what kind of a mother you will be — having support, learning better ways of coping with the stress of a new baby and how to parent a screechy toddler, and generally working those parenting skills as best you can can help you overcome “bad wiring.”

What do you think? is bad parenting a simple matter of brain cells, or is there more to it?