The Smile Study
Dr. Lane Strathearn, assistant professor in Pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine, and a developmental pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, helped conduct a study that showed mothers pictures of their own and other smiling babies (as well as infants with sad or neutral faces). Their responses were recorded by MRI. "When mothers see their own baby's face, 'reward' centers of the brain are activated, similar to when a cocaine addict gets a shot of cocaine!" Dr. Strathearn says. "It's like a 'natural high' that I believe stimulates responsive care-giving behavior, and strengthens the mother-infant bond."
Mothers' brains reacted less to infants other than their own. Maybe this explains the need parents have for making their baby crack that first grin—and then striving to get it to happen again and again.
What's in a Smile?
All babies have beautiful smiles, it's true. But there's something about the smile of your own little one that seems to give you just what you need at just the right time. "That first smile, regardless of what prompts it, gives me all the feedback I need to know everything I have been doing for the baby while juggling husband, boss, coworkers, clients, my other children, no matter how tiring, exhausting or frustrating, has been successful," says Stasi Turrell, a mother of four from Dallas, Texas. "The smile means to me my baby is happy, which is really the most important [thing], and that alone makes me happy, and as a bonus the smile means to me that she appreciates and loves me. It makes it all worth it and re-invigorates me to keep going."
As Dr. Strathearn found in his study, that mother-baby connection seems to actually affect moms physically, as well as emotionally.
Lula Jones, a mom from Philadelphia, has a background of mild depression and believes that her son's smile has a more powerful effect than antidepressants. "When I'm having a difficult time emotionally, my husband's favorite thing to do is to stick our son's face in front of me and tell our son, 'Smile for Mommy!'" Jones says. "He always gives me the most innocent smile beaming with joy. Every single time it melts my heart and reminds me that no matter what is going on in life, there is absolutely nothing more important than the love that we have for each other. In those smiles, I know that I am his world and he is mine."
Jodi White Jones feels baby smiles can relieve parenting stresses. "Especially as a new parent, but often at any stage when there can be a bit of anxiety over your child's well-being and the ways in which a parent reacts, whether your parenting skills and actions are emotionally and developmentally 'correct' or 'healthy,' whether the baby is nursing enough, growing enough, sleeping properly, etc., your child's smile can be one of the most rewarding and reassuring actions even if for a brief moment," says the Chicago resident. "And that brief moment of reassurance is what can help a parent handle the constant or new worry of raising a child."