The Child Whisperer
Last night my young son had a nightmare. I could hear the rhythmic bouncing of his feet off the floorboards moments before he catapulted his way into the “family bed” to seek sanctuary from whatever demons haunt his developing psyche. It was half past two in the morning. As it weren’t enough to take comfort in our bed and be flanked by slumbering parents, my son turned to me and feebly requested that I sing to him until he fell back asleep. I assure you this request is not due my particularly soothing singing voice, nor is it due to my large repertoire of songs (at 2am I am lucky if I could get out a few verses of “Skip to My Lou“). What I assume this need for a 2am nightingale is all about is simply the need for something more substantial than human contact; the croaky, but loving, reassurance of the parental voice.
As luck would have it, I came upon the following NPR story this AM (after I was done with “Skip to My Lou”) that highlights a study completed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that equates a mother’s whispers to a child to be just as powerful and healing as a hug. The researchers hypothesized that the child’s brain might release the hormone oxytocin (coincidentally, this is the same hormone naturally unleashed to aid pregnant women during childbirth) in response to a mother’s words of comfort, similar to the brain’s response to a mother’s physical nurturing.
The study goes on to establish that the neurohormone oxytocin (not to be confused with the prescription drug OxyContin) partly governs a number of biological and social processes critical to fitness, such as attachment between mothers and their young, and suppression of the stress response after contact with trusted intimates. So they did a study with mother/daughter (ages 7 -12) dyads and applied a social stressor to the children (they spoke in public and performed math tasks in front of an audience) and then they randomly assigned child participants into complete contact, speech-only or no-contact conditions with their mothers. The results were as expected. Children who had physical or vocal interaction with their mothers experienced the same amount of stress reduction as did those who received vocal comfort alone, and those poor children who had no contact with their mothers (they were made to sit and watch a video) were measured to be circulating high levels of stress chemicals through their bodies. Conclusion: that a soothing maternal voice is essential to the development and maintenance of both social bonds and personal confidence.
An interesting study to say the least, but horribly gender biased. Granted not all scientific studies can (or have the budget to) include large swaths of the population (i.e. dads, grandparents, care givers, etc) but the nature of this study (including only pre-pubescent girls and their mothers) seems to be defined by its limitations. While I refuse to take personal offense regarding the omission of fathers (and sons) in this study, I will say that the hypothesis was a foregone conclusion and hardly represents rigorous scientific investigation. It is possible that switching up the dyad, and paring up mothers and sons, or fathers and daughters (or even close relatives and children) might have yielded some truly interesting and illuminating results.
Regardless, the point of the study was to illustrate the inarguable power of the human voice to calm, appease and placate a stressed out child. Most attentive parents already know all about the potential of the human voice. But I have to wonder what a study like this would yield if it were to investigate the link between a parental voice and its ability to induce stress and/or anxiety? Or would the same study work with oxytocin levels and a spouse or sibling? Is it explicitly the mother’s voice that holds such soothing magic?