Sarah Enos Watamura: Helping moms and dads exercise their positive parenting muscles

By Sarah Enos Watamura

A newborn's cry pierces the 4 a.m. stillness as darkness loses its grip on the sky. We are bone-tired. Neither of us has slept more than an hour in days, not since before we were her parents.

It's our first night home from the hospital — no nurses, no family. Although we are beyond exhausted, that cry has brought us to full attention hour after hour — some wild force propelling us out of bed and to her side, again and again.

In a few months we will know how to soothe her — the right touch, the right song — and when she is hungry, or wet or cold. But tonight we fumble, we struggle, we despair, we persevere.

That wild force that propels us to her side and supports our determined struggle to be her first and most effective caregivers? It's powered by a changing brain and a flood of potent hormones.

The power of a new parent's changing brain is often overlooked — something we cannot afford if we want all families and communities to be healthy and thriving. My colleagues and I are looking at a fascinating new line of neuro-imaging studies of the regions of the brain that change to support parenting.

The changing brain that drives new parents to care for their offspring while subjugating their own needs for food and sleep is not unique to humans. New mother rats will choose their pup's cry over cocaine, though rats that aren't parents choose cocaine over food and water. And it isn't unique to mothers: Among humans and prairie voles, the same changes happen for new moms and new dads.

Three key changes have been documented.

In the reward circuit — the part of the brain that orients us toward food and sex and which is co-opted by drugs — there are changes in size and structure, and the brain becomes more responsive to the sounds and images of one's own baby.

In the social information circuit — a part of the brain important for processing social signals and a part that operates differently when people have disorders such as autism — there is also structural growth and increased responsiveness to infant signals.

Lastly, there are changes in the emotion regulation circuit. Changes here are twofold: to both detect and feel empathy at another's distress, but also to regulate your own distress so you can actually help. More supportive parenting neurobiology is strongly related to the sensitivity of caregiving that parents provide.

The transition to parenting is a true sensitive period — a time of openness, a time of vulnerability. New parents are open to massive structural and functional brain reorganization, but they are also at heightened risk for stress and mood disorders.

The vulnerability may be heightened when new parents have a history of poor caregiving, have experienced trauma or depression, or have substance-use disorders.

In fact, when new parents come to the table of parenting with these vulnerabilities, they may experience fewer supportive neurobiological changes, making the transition to parenting that much more challenging.

When parents who are struggling in their new role say, "I'm not sure I love this baby as much as I should," or "When she cries, I curl up and cry too — I'm so overwhelmed," they may be telling us their brains are not yet providing them the extra boost of support they need.

What can we do when the already tough job of parenting is made tougher? In a new study, my colleagues and I are testing this. If we help parents improve their core relationship with their baby, reduce the stress of parenting, and help them improve their parenting self-efficacy, can we jump-start their brains toward a reorganization that supports parenting?

I believe this is possible. Brains change. When we exercise and learn and grow, we build more efficient and robust brain circuits. Brain changes reflect and support our most important transitions — in early life, in adolescence, and during the transition to parenting.

If we help parents exercise their positive parenting muscles, supportive parenting brain circuitry should get stronger too.

Parents need to believe that we all have the capacity to be wonderful parents. They need to share their questions and fears with their doctors, pediatricians, and families, so they can get the support they need.

And it is the responsibility of pediatricians, early childhood teachers, and anyone working with young families to help parents build their parenting muscles. Families' ability to thrive and the social fabric of our communities depend on it.

— Sarah Enos Watamura, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver. She will be a featured panelist at the Herald-Tribune's Hot Topics Forum "Shelter from Stress: What Every Family Needs," to be held Friday, Feb. 24, from 3:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Booker High School's VPA Center, 3201 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. To reserve a seat call 955-3000 or go to: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2gen-hot-topics-registration-31606000398.