Monday, 28 January 2008

Differences in the way teen and adult mothers respond to baby cries

Teenage mothers don't respond in the same way physiologically as adult mothers do to the sound of babies crying. That's according to Jennifer Giardino and colleagues who say the difference is probably due to the neural immaturity of the teenage mothers' brains.

Fifty-six recently-pregnant teenage mothers (average age 18 years), 58 age-matched, non-parent teenage girls, and 49 recently-pregnant adult mothers (average age 31 years) were played audio tapes of babies crying either with hunger or pain. The participants were asked to indicate how the cries made them feel, and their heart rate and cortisol levels were also recorded, the latter via a saliva swab. Afterwards the mothers were also videoed playing with their own baby for 15 minutes.

From a physiological perspective there was no difference in the way the teenage mothers and the teenage non-mothers responded to the sounds of the babies' cries. However, the teenage mums reported feeling more sympathy and being more alert to the babies' cries.

When the teen mums were compared with the adult mothers, the opposite pattern emerged. The teenagers said the cries made them feel the same way as the adult mothers did, but physiologically there were differences. The adult mothers showed increased heart rate and cortisol in response to the cries, whereas the younger mothers did not.

These physiological differences appeared to be reflected in the way the two groups of mothers played with their children - the teenage mothers spent less time interacting with their child when videoed, and more time looking away.

The overall pattern of results held even after controlling for the time of day that testing took place and the socio-economic status of the fathers.

Taken together, the researchers said their results suggest teenage mothers are less attuned to infants behaviourally and physiologically, perhaps due to the fact their own brains are still developing. "In addition to the social and economic challenges confronting teenage mothers that may explain some of the present results," they wrote, "there is also a substantial literature indicating that the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain region important for planning and executive functioning, is still developing through the teenage years..."

Giardino, J., Gonzalez, A., Steiner, M. & Fleming, A.S. (2008). Effects of motherhood on physiological and subjective responses to infant cries in teenage mothers: A comparison with non-mothers and adult mothers. Hormones and Behaviour, 53, 149-158.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Gershom Kaligawa said...

Interesting... I wonder what other factors can play into this like "were the older moms more knowledgable on interacting with their children from reading more parenting books than the average 18 y/o child?" how many accidental pregnancies were involved compared to planned. I would think someone planning a child could potentially learn more than an accidental pregnancy. I don't know many 18 year olds "trying" to start their family. That may play a factor into it. but it was interesting none the less!

Emily Patterson-Kane said...

Indeed, obviously the groups are not randomly assigned--they likely differ in life experience, and personality (greatly?). I think that even a brief description of the study should address that issue.

Anonymous said...

This isn't a proper sample, women who become mothers when they are young are often drastically different than women who don't. Even if you took that same 18 year old woman and did these tests 12 years later she still may not have those physiological responses. Couldn't it be that the women who became teen mothers represented one demographic and the older mothers a much different one (perhaps wealthier, more educated?)

It is an unfair representation of young mothers.

Anonymous said...

Because younger mothers registered less psychical anxiety whilst registering the same sympathetic emotions, might indicate that younger women are physiologically better attuned to the demands of childcare. Certainly the peak of fertility is 18-24 for women and most first born babies world wide are born to women under twenty. According to Piaget, formal operational thinking is reached at around twelve, so we're ok on the cognitvie development front too!

Anonymous said...

A systematic understanding of something that I suspect most people would know already. Interesting nevertheless. I would imagine a whole host of other factors that would impact the response. For instance were the mothers raising the babies alone or they had support from a partner/friend/family. Likewise their own health status - both physical and mental.

Anonymous said...

its not always how young the mother is but how mature. i have no children but i have a friend with two kids at 17. it was irresponsible to me but she is doing a great job. she is now 18 work at a hospital and a side job also attends a universty. she has her own place and car. her kids doesnt go without and she never complains.

Unknown said...

How do you know they weren't randomly assigned? The two populations differ but the assignment is not actually stated. Yes you can assume they most likely used volunteers but not certainly. Either way it is not too biased and, given the sample size, fairly reliable.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if older mothers' physiological response to their babies' distress could also see them more prone to anxiety? I say this as an older mother, surrounded by other older mothers. People often suggest older mothers get more het up about mothering young babies because they're used to having control in their jobs, but perhaps they're also more predisposed to anxiety if their bodies are programmed to respond this way to crying babies. Could it go back to a time when women over 30 would have been grandmothers rather than mothers - when older women helped with the care of their 18 year old daughters' babies?

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