10 Things Science Says About Being a Mom in 2016

For one, a nurturing mother can help her child’s brain grow

mother and baby

A good mother is reliable, loyal, a constant in a swirling world. Except, mothers are changing all the time. The average age of a first-time mom in the United States is now older than ever—just above 26. And today’s typical American mother has just two kids, compared to three two generations ago.

Scientists continue to learn new things about moms, too. Here are fresh conclusions about motherhood from 10 studies or surveys published this year.

Moms boost brains: Don’t doubt the power of mother love. Moms who are supportive and particularly nurturing during their children’s preschool years may actually boost the growth of their kids’ brains. That’s according to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who analyzed brain scans of children from preschool to early adolescence. They found that kids who were warmly nurtured in the early years of their lives had a larger hippocampus than those who weren’t. That’s the part of the brain tied to learning, memory and the ability to control emotions. 

Losing sleep: This may not come as much of a surprise, but scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia have confirmed that new moms lose more than twice as much sleep as new dads. Their survey found that mothers of new babies lost, on average, five hours of sleep a week, compared to two hours for new fathers. The researchers also determined that the gap in the amount of sleep between women and men in a couple was greater if they had children. 

Beware of middle school: Middle school can be a pretty miserable time in a kid’s life. Turns out it’s not a very good time for mothers, either.  According to a study at Arizona State University, mothers of middle school-aged children reported higher levels of stress and loneliness than mothers of children in other age groups. The study involved analyzing surveys from more than 2,200 moms—more than 80 percent had a college or graduate degree—and comparing how those with children in only one age group felt about their lives.

Age matters: Based on analysis of data from more than 1.5 million Swedish adults born between 1960 and 1991, a team of scientists found that people born to mothers who were in their late 30s and 40s during that period were more likely to be taller, fitter and better educated than children born to younger moms. This was found even to be true within families—a sibling born when a mom was in her 40s generally received more education than a sibling born to that same mother when she was much younger. The researchers also determined that based on data from the Swedish military draft, young men born to older mothers tended to be slightly taller and more fit.

Bad odds: Nevada is now the worst state in which to be a working mom, according to new research by analysts for the personal finance website WalletHub. Its state-by-state ranking is based on ratings of three main factors—child care (including day care availability and cost, access to pediatric care and school quality), professional opportunities (including median women’s salary, gender pay gap and ratio of female to male executives) and work-life balance (including parental leave policies, average commute time and length of average work week). The best state this year, according to WalletHub, is Vermont, followed by Minnesota, Connecticut, North Dakota and Massachusetts. Joining Nevada at the bottom of the list are Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska.

Like mother, like daughter: There’s new evidence that mood disorders, such as depression, are more likely to be passed on from mothers to daughters than any other combination of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Neuroscience concluded that based on brain scans of all the members of 35 different families, the volume of gray matter in the region of the brain tied to regulating emotion was most similar for mothers and daughters. But the research team at the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out that since mental health problems can be caused by a number of factors, mothers aren’t necessarily responsible for their daughters’ depression.

Seals of approval: Research has suggested that women with higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle hormone,” in their systems more actively bond with their babies. Now a study of grey seals in the North Atlantic has drawn similar conclusions. Specifically, it found that female seals with higher levels of oxytocin stayed closer to their pups than those with lower levels.

Not quite like in the ads: There seems to be a big disconnect between how pregnant women and new mothers are portrayed in ads and how their real-world counterparts feel about themselves. That’s the conclusion of a survey by the BabyCenter website of almost 5,000 women, which found that while only 30 percent of the respondents would describe themselves as “beautiful,” about 63 percent said that’s how advertisers described women like them. Other descriptions were seen as equally off. For instance, while only 13 percent of the survey respondents said they felt “fit,” 32 percent said they thought ads presented pregnant women and new moms that way. The word “anxious” prompted a similar response—50 percent of those who responded said they felt anxious. But only 21 percent believed women like them are portrayed that way in ads.

Double shot: Even before their babies are born, mothers are doing the protection thing. New research at the University of Utah has confirmed that pregnant women who get flu shots can protect their newborns from contracting the illness. It determined that babies of unvaccinated women were 70 percent more likely to have a case of flu and 81 percent more likely to be hospitalized for the flu within their first six months than infants of women who got shots.

Really?: According to a survey by the online shopping site Ebates, almost half of the people buying Mother’s Day gifts will be the moms themselves. Of the mothers surveyed, about 42 percent said they pick out their own gifts some of the time, while 8 percent said they always buy their own presents. 

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.