(1) What "Turns On" Mothering?
Studies on many nonhuman mammals show that immediate and consistent exposure to pups during the first few hours after childbirth is essential for optimal maternal behavior and for bonding between mother and infant. Of especial importance is the young's smell and feel, which seems to "turn on maternal behavior" and foster a special relationship between mom and her pups. Our studies have shown that human mothers can identify their newborns by the smell and the feel of their skin after as little as one hour of exposure to their infants, These results suggest that humans mothers have a special talent that we believe helps mothers feel that "this is my baby" immediately after childbirth.
(2) Normal Parenting
Well-coordinated and fun interactions between mothers and their infants are cornerstones of optimal development. One of the goals of our research is to identify differences in the "dances" between mothers and children who are having problems and those who are doing well. We also have observed fathers and children during play to learn about their "dances" and the importance of father-involvement in their children's lives. In efforts to inform new parents, we have surveyed mothers as to their primary concerns during the early postpartum months and validated a questionnaire to quantify them. The questionnaire is now being used by researchers in Europe, Australia, and the US.
(3) Anxious Parenting and Early Development of Children
Research shows that children of anxious mothers are at risk for developing anxiety or other disorders in their lives. Primary goals of the Parenting Lab are to identify pathways by which anxiety is transmitted from parent to child and to discern early signs of disturbed development among children of anxious mothers. We also aim to identify factors that can explain why some children are more affected by having an anxious mother than are others. Our findings suggest that, by 6-months of age, infants of highly anxious mothers show less affect and fewer coping behaviors in stressful situations than do infants of more typical mothers, and this kind of behavior predicts a risk for behavioral (externalizing, internalizing) problems at preschool age (Figure 1). Our findings also show that specific genes and difficult family circumstances substantially increase children's risk for developing anxiety by 4-years old.
(4) The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma
Research suggests that stress imposed on mothers before or during pregnancy may affect the development of the fetal brain and developing neural circuitry. Learning why and how this happens is one of the primary aims of our research. Our recent work focuses on women who lived in the South of Israel during a recent period of frequent missile attacks. In this study, we are interested in the effects that trauma from terror can have on the antenatal health of mother and fetus. We also test for genes and environmental factors that may make some women particularly susceptible to ill health in the aftermath of trauma (For more information, see www.babydarom.org.il).