My son was born into a room of chaos. But the moment I spoke, my voice cut through the noise, flowed into his tiny ears, and he immediately turned his head toward mine. We locked eyes and an epic love affair was born. (He hasn’t been able to get me to shut up since.)
I thought my experience was just some mama-baby magic, but it’s actually based in science.
According to a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a child’s brain has stronger responses when exposed to their mother’s voice versus the voice of a stranger — even if the mother is speaking nonsensical words for even a fraction of a second! Magic. Science magic.
Your child’s anatomy isn’t the only element affected by your voice — their emotions are also soothed, like when you’re explaining why Diego left Dora for his own show or why marshmallows and peanut butter are not suitable breakfast foods.
According to the lead author of the study, Daniel Abrams, an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, “We know that hearing [their] mother’s voice can be an important source of emotional comfort to children. Here, we’re showing the biological circuitry underlying that.”
Think about moments when your child is upset — you often hold them and comfort them with your body, but do you ever do that without also soothing them with kind words and tones? Your warm arms and voice are usually essential components to calming a distraught child.
To study the theory that the mother’s voice has a key role in the emotional and social development of a child, brain scans were done on 24 healthy children, between the ages of 7 and 12. The children were exposed to clips (lasting less than a second) of gibberish words spoken by their biological mother, and clips recorded by two women the children did not know.
Ninety-seven percent of the time, the children were able to identity the voice of their mother.
But, it wasn’t just the child’s listening skills that lit up when exposed to their mama’s tones; parts of the brain connected to emotions, rewards, and facial recognition also perked up their metaphorical ears, much more so than when exposed to the strangers’ voices.
The researchers believe there is a correlation between the children recognizing their mother’s voices so rapidly, and the increased activity of so many areas of the brain — specifically the area of the brain linked to rewards. They suggest the brain becomes trained to latch on to the voice of the mother so quickly so it can attempt to get some rewards from her.
“Oh! That was Mom’s voice! Maybe she has some kisses and hugs for me. Or candy. I hope she has candy.”
Moving forward, the researchers hope to use the findings from the pattern of connections found in the brains of the children who had the greatest connectivity (and who were found to be better at communicating socially), to study the brains of children who have difficulty with social communication.
If you’re feeling enthused to infuse your child with some hearty doses of Mama’s Sweet Sounds, here are some ideas to get you started (beyond, you know, just plain ole’ talking).
Sing to your child.
They do not care if your singing voice sounds like a toad being strangled — it will be yummy honey to their ears, brain, and emotions.
Sometimes it’s easier to mooch off of someone else’s words. When you’re at a loss for consonants and vowels, grab a few of your child’s fave books and snuggle up on the couch together. (Extra points for using silly voices.)
Make up stories.
If you also want to get your brain in on the expansion action, stretch it out by making up your own stories, encouraging your child to participate if they’re beyond babbling age.
Record your voice.
If your child has been experiencing separation anxiety, you can record yourself reading her favorite book or singing a lullaby, to be played to her when you’re apart. I made a recording of myself singing my son’s “Night Night” song before I left on a recent overnight trip, and whoa nelly does it sound awful, but he loves it, and it helped him fall asleep.
Talk to your baby.
Chitchat is not just for the older kids. I know it feels weird talking to a tiny human who seems to care less about what you’re jabbering on about, but they secretly love it. Your stream of consciousness helps to develop baby’s language skills and builds all the same favorable connections found in the big kids.
And, when your child turns into a teenager and rags on you for talking too much, tell them, “It’s good for you!”