Isn’t it great when science validates something we intuitively know? Such is the case with Dr. Michael Meaney, a professor of McGill University with an interest in maternal care, stress and gene expression. In the Annual Review of Neuroscience he published work centered on the natural variation he noticed in licking and grooming by mother rats. He found that the kind of care that mother rats provide to their offspring alters genes responsible for stress response. The rat pups who experienced more licking and grooming were identifiable by the anatomy of their brain. When Meaney followed the rat pups into adulthood he found that those who were licked and groomed were better at completing mazes and even lived longer. The mechanism at play is that those pups who were licked and groomed produced fewer stress hormones when faced with a challenge. This is important, because he know in humans, when our brains are bathed for too long in stress hormones we are always “on alert,” anxious and exposed to an increased risk of mental health issues, heart disease or diabetes. We want our stress hormones to kick in when we are in danger, then dissipate. The licking and grooming provided to rat pups served as a protective factor and prepared them to manage stressors into adulthood.
What to parents of rats and parents of humans have in common? The capacity to provide affection and physical touch to their offspring. Dr. Meaney uses the implications of his work to note “Women’s health is critical. The single most important factor determining the quality of mother-offspring interactions is the mental and physical health of the mother.” This is true regardless if the primary caregiver is a mother, father or even grandparent. In subsequent research Dr. Meaney paired mothers who scored high on licking and grooming with rat pups who were not their biological pups and the outcome was the same. We have opportunities daily to engage with our children in a way that will better prepare them to ride the wave of adulthood in an emotionally healthy way.
What does licking and grooming look like when you are in parenting a human rather than a rat? Good question. Many of the things you are already doing, for example, lotioning your child after a bath, playing patty-cake or “this little piggy.” Theraplay is a clinical intervention focused on building attachment between parents and children. One of the domains of focus is nurture, which is all about physical touch and expressing to the child “you are worthy of good care.”
Some Theraplay activities include lotioning, which can be used as a variation for an older child. Start by placing dots of lotion along the child's arms, or face and slowly rub in each dot. Creating a secret handshake with your child. Giving your child and manicure or pedicure with a focus on physical touch and nurture. Face painting, a thumb war, mirroring, peek-a-boo. Using your finger to draw letters on your child’s back and see if they can guess the word. Create a variation of a song for your child, Theraplay uses Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, with a twist “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, what a special boy you are, dark brown hard and soft, soft cheeks, big green green eyes from which you peek…. As you can see many of these activities are built into the way we interact with children already. By being conscious to include them in your daily routines you and your child will benefit. So, the next time you snuggle a newborn, or force your third grader into a hug, feel proud that you are having an impact--on a cellular level.
**This was first published by familyshare at: http://www.familyshare.com/Parenting/biochemistry-of-good-parenting.