Hey mama, I see you there . . .
Scrolling past yet another article that promises to BLOW. YOUR. MIND. or reveal the SHOCKING TRUTH . . . about kittens. Or pandas. Or the mold that grows on paleo bread if you leave it out too long.
Today I’ve got something far better to share with you. Are you ready? It’s . . . . YOU.
Yep, seriously. Sure, it’s easy to think that motherhood is mostly about asking people to put pants on because company has arrived, but actually there’s this whole other thing going on without us even trying.
Five Facts About Motherhood
It’s a beautiful reality that doesn’t care if the pile of dishes in the sink have now spilled over onto every square inch of the countertop. You might even say it’s poetic, and . . . well, maybe I should just tell you . . .
1. You will always carry your child in your heart (really)
There’s a famous saying that says, “We hold our children in our arms for a little while, and in our hearts forever.” Every parent knows it’s true. But for mothers, well, it’s literally true.
“In pregnancy, women are shape-shifters, their bellies waxing like the moon. After delivery, they hold another kind of magic: microchimerism, a condition in which women harbor cells that originated in their children even decades after birth.” (Source: The Atlantic)
These cells, full of our children’s DNA, collect in our hearts, our brains . . . everywhere we can think of. They become part of us, often staying with us for decades upon decades. This is true even if baby we carried didn’t live to be born, writes Laura Weldon.
The full impact of microchimerism is not known, but according to Weldon, there’s evidence that fetal cells may:
“provide some protection against certain cancers. For example, they’re much more prevalent in the breast tissue of healthy women than in those with breast cancer. Fetal cells are less common in women who developed Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting they provide late-life protection. Fetal cells can contribute stem cells, generate new neurons in the mother’s brain, even help to heal her heart.“
“When the heart is injured, fetal cells seem to flock to the site of injury and turn into several different types of specialized heart cells. Some of these cells may even start beating, a mouse study found. So technically, those icky-sweet Mother’s Day cards may be right: A mother really does hold her children in her heart.” (source)
However, as Weldon states, “family dynamics are complicated even at the cellular level.” While in many cases a large quantity of fetal cells is associated with a decrease in autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, in some cases the presence of the cells may trigger or aggravate an autoimmune disorder. Scientists are still exploring possible explanations for different outcomes.
2. Breastfeeding? You make medicine in real time.
“How exactly is my body able to write my daughter a prescription for her illness without a diagnosis?” That’s what Angela Garbes wanted to know when she interviewed biologist Katie Hinde for this article in The Stranger.
Researchers have long known that breastfeeding provides real-time immune support, meaning that as your baby encounters bacteria and viruses, you will make immune boosting compounds and pass them on via breast milk.
But how does your body know when to make them, and what exactly to make? Dr. Hinde has an interesting theory: Baby backwash.
“According to Hinde, when a baby suckles at its mother’s breast, a vacuum is created. Within that vacuum, the infant’s saliva is sucked back into the mother’s nipple, where receptors in her mammary gland read its signals. This ‘baby spit backwash,’ as she delightfully describes it, contains information about the baby’s immune status. Everything scientists know about physiology indicates that baby spit backwash is one of the ways that breast milk adjusts its immunological composition. If the mammary gland receptors detect the presence of pathogens, they compel the mother’s body to produce antibodies to fight it, and those antibodies travel through breast milk back into the baby’s body, where they target the infection.” (source)
For a more scientific explanation, including a link to the 2004 study that first discovered “baby backwash” and another that tracked leukocytes in breastmilk, check out this article from Science News.
Another awesome feedback mechanism is kissing. Yes, KISSING.
“When a mother kisses her baby, she ‘samples’ those pathogens that are on the baby’s face. Those are ones that the baby is about to ingest. These samples are taken up by the mother’s secondary lymphoid organs like the tonsils, and memory B cells specific for those pathogens are re-stimulated. These B cells then migrate to the mother’s breasts where they produce just those antibodies that the baby needs.” says Lauren Sompayrac, author of How The Immune System Works.” (source)
Breastfeeding for a full year conveys immune factors for all the seasons – cold, flu and allergy. If breastfeeding continues into the second year of life, some immune factors actually increase in concentration. (source)
Note: As I shared in this post, I struggled to breastfeed my second child. I fully embrace the notion that our bodies are capable and wise, but I also know that sometimes in our effort overcome the mountain of “cant’s” thrown out by the medical community and media regarding birth and breastfeeding, we accidentally create an environment that is unfriendly to moms struggling with disappointments in these areas. If that is you, know that you are loved and welcome here.
3. And get this, your smile is like music.
Even if, like me, you can’t carry a tune. You see, our bodies synchronize with music, and sometimes even with those we love most.
“Babies and their mothers share a deeply physiological connection. In one study of infant reaction to mothers, fathers, and strangers, an infant girl was brought into a lab and set in a plastic seat that was curtained off from distractions. The baby was then approached by her mother, then her father, and then a stranger.
Chest monitors on the baby and the adults showed that the baby synchronized her heart rate to that of the mother or father when they approached, but she did not synchronize her heart rate to the stranger’s.
The data suggests that babies and their caretakers are entwined in a homeostatic relationship, with the baby clicking in with the parents to achieve some sort of balance.”
Our Babies, Ourselves, p. 38 (emphasis mine)
In addition, this study found that 3-month old babies and their mothers coordinate heart rhythms when moms show signs of affection like smiling. Babies have faster heart rates than adults, but researchers found that mom-baby pairs hit more beats together than babies and women who were not their mothers.
It’s not just babies, though.
This study found that our hearts can sync with a loved one during stressful situations. The connection didn’t rely on biological connection, which I’m sure is no surprise to the amazing families I know that have embraced adoption.
So what about non-stressful events? Well, this study found that couples who sat on a couch a few feet away from each other synchronized heart rates and respiration, even when they didn’t speak or touch. The same was not true when individuals sat near people who were not their spouse. Though the study was limited to couples, it seems likely that the physiological connection already demonstrated between parents and children (biological or chosen) in previous studies would endure as the relationship grows. Pretty awesome, huh?
4. And your voice? It’s just as comforting as a hug.
What happens when ask a group of 7-12 year old girls to deliver an impromptu speech and then publicly quiz them with a series of math problems? Stress, and lots of it.
In a study where researchers created this exact scenario, they took one more step and tried to find out what would most help the girls return to a relaxed stated.
“The girls were then divided into three groups, one comforted by physical contact with their mothers, another by phone calls from their mothers and a third by watching a film deemed emotionally neutral, the March of the Penguins.
Oxytocin rose to similar levels in the first two groups and did not increase in the third, saliva and urine tests revealed. As this hormone’s presence grew, cortisol faded.
Leslie Seltzer, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the research, said: ‘The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone.
‘It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact. But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there.'” (Source: The Guardian)
Interestingly, the soothing effect lingered long after the conversation ended. Who knew?
5. One last thing – our babies name us.
“In English she’s mom; in Mandarin Chinese, mama. To Spanish kids, she’s mama too, though with slightly different accents on the syllables. “Mom” is translated as mamma in Iceland, ma in punjabi, em in Hebrew and me in Vietnamese. Noticing a trend? No coincidence — one of the first word-like sounds babies typically vocalize is a “ma” sound, and almost every language across the globe has taken that baby talk as the basis for the word for mother.” (source)