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Stanford Medicine

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Parenting, Research

Caregiver response toward infants not confined to parents

A natural-born parent? It might really be a thing. And you need not have children to test your infant-caregiving instinct.

Research released today by the National Institutes of Health indicated that childless adults who viewed photos of infants’ faces showed distinct patterns of brain activity, perhaps indicating a predisposition to care for human babies. (The same patterns did not occur when the seven men and nine women who participated in the study viewed photos of animals – even baby ones – or grown-up humans.)

Findings of the research, conducted in Germany, Italy, and Japan, appear in NeuroImage. The study’s release concludes:

Taken together, the researchers contend, the findings suggest a readiness to interact with infants that previously has been only inferred, and only from parents. Such brain activity in nonparents could indicate that the biological makeup of humans includes a mechanism to ensure that infants survive and receive the care they need to grow and develop.

However, signs of readiness to care for a child that appear in the brains of some or even most adults do not necessarily mean the same patterns will appear in the brains of all adults, [senior author Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D., head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that collaborated on the study] said. “It’s equally important to investigate what’s happening in the brains of those who have neglected or abused children,” he said. “Additional studies could help us confirm and understand what appears to be a parenting instinct in adults, both when the instinct functions and when it fails to function.”

Photo by Libertinus

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