Stress seems to be a constant, especially these days, and some of us find stress easier to manage than others. But how we handle stress can make all the difference—not only for us, but for our children as well.
Past studies have shown that a mother’s stress levels make it harder to bond with and interact with her baby—they can also have a negative effect on her child’s brain development, affecting the outcomes of her children’s learning. But a recent study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics indicates that how a mother handles her stress (most notably, by having a growth mindset) can actually protect her baby from those consequences.
How mindset matters
Lead researchers Mei Elansary, MD, and Dana Charles McCoy, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital, interviewed 33 mothers with 12-month-old babies about their mindsets and stress levels. Then they used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their babies’ brain activity. They found that high stress in mothers can lower the frequency, quality of patterns and strength of high frequency gamma and beta waves in the brains of their babies, which are associated with greater cognitive ability in later childhood—but only if the mother had a fixed mindset, believing that things cannot be changed.
Fixed mindset vs. growth mindset
Mothers with a fixed mindset believe that no matter what they do or how hard they work, their children’s abilities are going to stay the same.
But stressed mothers with a growth mindset, who believe abilities can be developed through work and effort, had babies who did not display changes on their EEG. Because there were no changes, the researchers concluded that babies raised by mothers with growth mindsets were more protected against high levels of stress and its negative effect on brain development.
A growth mindset benefits mothers too
Not only can a mama’s mindset mitigate the effects of stress on her baby’s brain function, but it can serve to buffer her own stress as well.
In a meta study published in Clinical Psychology Review that incorporated results from over 17,000 research participants in 72 studies that spanned 31 years, researchers examined the link between growth mindset and mental health. They observed that a growth-oriented mindset was associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychological stress or just feelin’ blue, implying that a growth mindset could buffer against the fallout from negative events and difficult situations in life.
That said, the lead researchers note that merely having a growth mindset isn’t going to simply erase the barriers that many new parents come up against, such as a lack of paid leave, costly childcare and reduced access to early childhood education, health and nutrition in some places.
“We need to advocate for interventions that support growth mindsets, but at the same time, we need to acknowledge that there are huge systemic stressors and barriers placed on new parents, especially in the first year of children’s lives,” says Dr. McCoy. “Growth mindsets are not going to solve those.”
How to adopt a growth mindset
Still, much can be gleaned and no harm done by adopting a growth mindset.
The Boston study was the first to bring to light that as early as infancy, mindsets can affect outcomes. Since the developing nervous system of a baby is susceptible to stress, it’s never too early to encourage mothers to have a growth mindset that can help mitigate the negative effects and ensure that their children’s neurodevelopment is protected and optimized.
That may look like working with a therapist or counselor to help shift negative thinking by analyzing your internal dialogue, starting a gratitude practice, celebrating small victories and leaning into new challenges, as an example. Instilling a growth mindset in kids starts with building up their confidence and helping them embrace challenges.
Helping mothers—and parents in general—understand that their and their children’s abilities are not fixed and can be developed is a simple and affordable investment in their baby’s development, instilling the beginnings of a hopeful and empowering outlook.
Burnette JL, Knouse LE, Vavra DT, O’Boyle E, Brooks MA. Growth mindsets and psychological distress: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 2020;77. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101816.
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Elansary M, Pierce L, Wei W, Mccoy D, Zuckerman B, Charles N. Maternal Stress and Early Neurodevelopment: Exploring the Protective Role of Maternal Growth Mindset. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 2021. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000998.
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