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The Child Whisperer

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?

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Mental Wellness, News & Issues, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

43 comments

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9:05AM PDT on Jul 8, 2010

This is a very interesting article, thank you for posting it!

11:20AM PDT on May 31, 2010

Thanks for the info! I too think it is beyond important to talk to our children as much as possible. Its a bond that you can begin to build from the first breath they take, to the last you breath as the parent. What a gift

4:08AM PDT on May 29, 2010

thanks so much! Happy weekend to all :). Greetings from sweet Aaisha and Aarif!

2:09AM PDT on May 27, 2010

were measured to high circulating levels of stress chemicals through their bodies. Conclusion: The soft voice of the mother is essential for the development and maintenance of two of the social ties and personal trust.
memory card reader

1:17AM PDT on May 23, 2010

Thank you!

12:18AM PDT on May 21, 2010

How interesting! Thank you.

8:25PM PDT on May 20, 2010

TY

4:54PM PDT on May 20, 2010

Love the song Skip to My Lou. I had nightmares when I was a kid in Belgium. In America as a teen in MD and NY I had nightmares, mostly based on fears or because I watched a scary movie, not a horror movie. Every kids need contact, touch, and a relationshp with their parents to build that bond...

9:25AM PDT on May 20, 2010

This is a bit of a tangent I know, but I've taught my 3 kids to recognise that they are dreaming when they are having a nightmare and either take control of it, or if they can't, wake themselves up from it. Even if they then wake up, because they've recognised it was only a dream before they woke up, they are much less bothered by it and can go back to sleep. It's something my mother taught me and it made me much more appreciative of my dreams, as well as ensuring that nightmares never got the better of me.

But saying that, I completely agree about the soothing power of a parent's voice - be it the mother or the father.

11:36PM PDT on May 19, 2010

good read, thanks

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