Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Adoptive mothers work too!


Last week I wrote about the marks that institutionalizing babies leaves on their brains years later, even when they are adopted in infancy: slower development, reaching a brain volume 10% smaller than that of children of the same age who have always been raised by their own families. On the one hand, this and other evidence, such as the high rate of anxiety disorders in adulthood, indicate that institutionalization should only be a last resort. On the other hand, however, they give rise to a misinterpretation: that adopting doesn’t help.

It does – and the message is precisely that orphaned or abandoned children need to be adopted as soon as possible, even by temporary families, preferably one that will know how to give them care and attention. The most striking evidence comes from… baby rats, which are easily “institutionalized” in the laboratory, receiving contact with mother rats just to feed them – or being handed over to the care of adoptive mother rats.

The impressive thing is that the difference between mere bureaucratic care and adoption by a loving mother or, on the contrary, by an absent mother, is evident even with the rats. Chronic separation from the mother leaves several marks on the brain, changes that lead to cognitive problems, chronic anxiety and hyperreactivity to stress in adulthood. Adoptive mothers who are as little present and attentive as an institutional caregiver help a little, but not much (although, for the brain, any mother is better than no mother at all – but that’s another matter).

In comparison, being raised by a loving adoptive mother rat, who is always picking up her offspring to lie on them and lick them, is great for these animals and their brains.

What’s more, even if they are the biological offspring of mothers who despised them, mice raised by loving mothers, adoptive or not, become adults with far fewer anxiety problems and, when their turn comes, loving mothers too. Giving affection to your adopted puppy, therefore, means investing in the well-being of your grandchildren right from the start.

Finally, parents, don’t feel left out. Studies with mice are necessarily done with mothers, because fathers… don’t give a damn about their pups. But you men are different: you can choose to make a difference to your children, whether biological or adopted, by giving them lots of affection and attention.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in October 2012.

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