After my friend Charlotte gave birth to her daughter Alice, she carried the girl constantly and smothered her with affection.
“You’re gonna spoil that baby,” said her next door neighbor, a grandfather who subscribed to an older-school style of parenting.
Charlotte can take heart: A study published this week suggests that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers grow up to be more resilient, less anxious adults.
In the study, researchers examined data on nearly 500 people who, as part of a long-term research project, had been observed with their mothers by a psychologist when they were eight months old. The psychologist rated the mothers’ level of affection toward their babies, ranking it from “negative” to “extravagant.”
Nearly 10 percent of the mothers showed low levels of affection, 85 percent demonstrated what the psychologists deemed a normal amount, and nearly 6 percent showed high levels.
When those infants became adults, at an average age of 34 they took a survey to measure how much they suffered from various types of distress, including their levels of anxiety and hostility.
The results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, showed that people who’d enjoyed the most affection from their mothers as infants had the lowest levels of distress as adults. This was especially true for their levels of anxiety, but across all the psychological symptoms of distress, the results were the same: More warmth from a mother was associated with less distress later in life.
This remained the case even when the researchers controlled for factors such as the participants’ education level and parents’ socioeconomic status.
The researchers write that their results suggest “even very early life experiences can influence adult health” and emphasize “the importance of having a strong nurturing relationship” in childhood.
Trying to explain the link between this “nurturing relationship” and adult resilience, the researchers speculate that a lot of affection may help children develop a secure attachment to their mothers. This feeling of security may, in turn, give them a stronger sense of self that serves as a buffer against stress. They add that a warmer relationship with their mothers may also make children feel more positive emotions; other research suggests that, like secure attachments, a steady diet of positive emotions can help people cope with whatever life throws their way.
The study is especially significant because it tracked the participants from the time they were infants through to adulthood; most studies on this topic have hinged on the participants’ recollections of their childhood.
However, as the researchers note, one limitation is that it relies on psychologists’ subjective judgments of what constitutes “normal” or “extravagant” levels of affection. Plus, what may have been considered “extravagant” in the 1960s (when the mothers were observed) might seem less so today.
The researchers argue that, should their findings be replicated, they would suggest that to help children develop into secure and resilient adults, parents, policymakers, and others should focus their attention on the relationships kids form with caregivers from a very early age, even earlier than is typically considered. They add that these results might also make a strong case for public policies that improve access to high-quality childcare.