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'Parent mode' may be hard-wired in our brains, say Harvard researchers

Different brain areas are in charge of particular aspects of parenting.

'Parent mode' may be hard-wired in our brains, say Harvard researchers

There are so many times when, as parents, we feel like we don't really know what we're doing, but there are also times when we almost feel like we're on autopilot.


If you've ever felt like part of your brain was able to parent on cruise control, science may have an explanation: Parenting behavior may be hard-wired, according to new research.

An animal study published this month in Nature found that neurons in a brain-wide circuit responsible for parenting behaviors sends signals to a subset of neurons that trigger certain actions. So, for example, when a mama mouse feels the need to groom her pups, researchers from Harvard University were able to identify the specific neuron subset that sets off that behavior. And other behaviors, such as motivation, feeding or social interaction, are triggered by individual and unique subsets of neurons, according to the study's findings.

"What we were able to do was first better understand the wiring of these neurons—what type of signal they receive from the rest of the brain, and what type of signal they send to the rest of the brain," lead researcher Catherine Dulac, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, tells Psychology Today of the findings. "Our hypothesis was that different brain areas are in charge of particular aspects of parenting. We tested these experimentally by both activating [the neurons] as well as inactivating them. Guess what? Our hypothesis was confirmed."

Dulac and her team first identified the parenting circuit in mice back in 2014. According to the Nature study published that year, the researchers discovered that galanin neurons, expressed in the hypothalamus area of the brain, are essential in managing parenting behavior. When those neurons were gone, Dulac tells Psychology Today, "the animals, whether they are moms or dads, no longer parent."

Of course, both studies were conducted with mice, so more research would be needed to see how parenting behavior is regulated in the human brain. But, Dulac says, it's "entirely hypothetical" that the parenting circuit is organized in much the same way in humans as it is in mice.

After all, Dulac continues, each neuron found in the hypothalamus overseeing instinctual parent behaviors "play exactly the same role throughout the evolution of the mammalian brain." "[And] parenting is a very conserved behavior across mammals," she adds, so it's likely that, even though the human brain is larger than a mouse brain, "this seat of the control of parenting is very likely to be conserved."

It's not a far-fetched theory, either. An Israeli study published in 2014 found taking care of children activates a parenting network in the brain uses two separate, but ultimately linked, neural pathways. And this was true for fathers in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships as it were for mothers, suggesting that the so-called maternal instinct is actually just a parental one.

But Dulac's recent study may have broader implications beyond knowing how the brain controls parenting. Scientists may also be able to gain insight into why certain conditions present themselves after people become parents. "Once you try to understand the normal functions of this subset of neurons," Dulac tells Psychology Today, "then maybe you can understand sometimes why this goes wrong as in postpartum depression."

The research also provides some insight into why so many new parents describe the moment their child is born as feeling like an internal switch has flipped. If you're currently expecting and nervous about parenting, don't worry—you've definitely got it in you, mama.

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My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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