The power of the mother-child bond

  • An infant is extraordinarily sensitive to its mother's behavior.
  • Baby rats nursed by their intoxicated mothers exhibit greater overall distress and aversion to alcohol.
  • The infants' distress and aversion seem dependent on maternal reaction to alcohol.
  • Alcohol's effects on maternal behavior may have long-lasting consequences for the infant.

It's no secret that a baby's survival, under normal circumstances, is dependent on the mother's behavior. Nourishment, appropriate body temperature, protection from harm - these are the basics. Yet researchers are also beginning to determine, as shown in a study in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, that a mother's behavior, altered by alcohol, can have powerful and enduring effects on her infant's subsequent memories.

"Infants are exquisitely sensitive to maternal behavior," said Norman E. Spear, distinguished professor of psychology at Binghamton University and one of the study's lead authors, "that's their entire context. If the mother's behavior deviates just a little bit from the norm, the infants notice and it's not a pleasant experience for them."

"Specific memories may be generated in relation to alcohol," added Juan Carlos Molina, co-author, professor of psychology at the University of Cordoba, and senior research scientist at the Instituto de Investigacion Medica Mercedes y Martín Ferreyra in Argentina.

In the study, baby rats were nursed by intoxicated mother rats. When compared with baby rats that nursed from alcohol-free mothers, the alcohol-exposed pups later demonstrated higher ultrasonic vocalizations (a traditional distress signal), greater motor activity during isolation (which is what rats do when they're disturbed), and aversion to a texture (sandpaper) that had been matched through smell with alcohol. Spear believes that the mother's alcohol-altered behavior, rather than the pup's react

Contact: Norman E. Spear, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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