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7 Ways Mothers Make the World a Healthier Place

7 Ways Mothers Make the World a Healthier Place

From eating habits to school performance, mothers help shape the health and behaviors of the next generation.

The bond between mothers and their children can be powerful. In the hours, weeks and months after birth, many babies begin to view their mom not just as a teacher and nurturer, but also as a model for how to navigate life. But mothers’ loving guidance often extends beyond their own sons and daughters, says Deborah Ingram, MD, a pediatrician at Plantation General Hospital in Plantation, Florida.

“A mother’s influence on the mental, physical and emotional health of her child can affect public health for generations,” Dr. Ingram explains. “Children will replicate their mother’s values, so you are leaving a footprint that will last decades into the future.”

Mother’s Day—or any day of the year, really—is a great opportunity to celebrate all the ways a mother has the potential to change the world for the better, one child at a time.

Their superpowers start before the baby is even born
A woman can start making the world a healthier place even before her pregnancy, says Ingram. “When a mother comes to the table with a positive attitude, takes care of herself and surrounds herself with people who support her, she is already being a positive influence on her baby,” she explains.

By maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy—giving up smoking and alcohol, eating well and keeping up physical activity—expectant mothers can also help ensure healthier outcomes for their babies. A study published in 2015 in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth suggests that a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy may have lasting benefits. Researchers found the children of women who did not gain excessive weight, did not smoke and were physically active during their pregnancy had a lower risk of obesity by the time they were 8-years old.

They can create healthy eaters
Researchers have consistently found that parents can have a profound influence on their children’s eating habits. That influence is twofold—both in the types of foods a mom provides and eats herself, and in how she encourages her child to try new things.

A 2010 study published in Public Health Nursing found that when mothers modeled healthy eating choices for their toddlers by consuming fruits and vegetables four or more times a week, the children were more likely to do the same. The researchers also found that when mothers viewed their children as “picky eaters,” the kids were less likely to eat healthy food.

Toddlers often refuse certain foods or prefer eating one or two specific things. This is considered normal behavior. Ingram points out that, yes, children may be headstrong and turn up their nose at a piece of broccoli, but moms can often help children overcome their pickiness.

“If you feel passive—‘Oh, he won’t try that, so why bother?’—then you’ve lost the battle before it begins,” she says. “But if you tell yourself you have the ability to affect your child’s choices, and you consistently offer him something healthy to eat, he will likely try it eventually.”

Keep in mind however, that other strategies may be needed to help children with food aversions, mealtime rituals or tantrums associated with certain health issues, such as autism spectrum disorders, expand their diets.

When moms move their muscles, so do their kids
Children may be inspired to get up off the couch if their mom loves to walk, bike, dance or toss around a ball or frisbee in the yard. In fact, a study published in Pediatrics in 2014 found that the activity level of four-year-olds was directly related to the activity level of their moms.

Even if you’re not a born athlete, you can be a positive role model by including your child in household chores and making them a fun bonding experience, says Ingram. “I tell parents to engage children around the house, sweeping the porch or folding laundry together, so they get used to being mobile and active.”

Mom’s cuddles may actually make the brain grow
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, who looked at brain images of children ages 7 to 13-years old, discovered that the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in memory as well as the regulation of emotion and stress—was, on average, about 10 percent larger in children who had nurturing mothers than in those who did not have that benefit. Based on previous studies, the researchers speculated that this benefit may be associated with lower levels of stress hormones. (No worries, dads and grandparents. The effect is expected to be the same for any primary caregiver).

The study has several limitations, including the fact that additional MRIs were not performed to rule out a genetic effect, but Ingram emphasized that “nurturing,” or being responsive to the needs of your children, can help them feel safe and secure in the world. “It is especially important at that tender age when they are 100 percent dependent on you,” she explains. “They are able to build their confidence and go off to school and learn without anxiety.”

Their love sets children up for a more resilient adulthood
Moms’ nurturing may not just make their children’s brains bigger, but it may also help them grow into adults who have lower levels of stress and anxiety, which could help them cope with the ups and downs they may face over time.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that looked back at the mental health records of more than 400 adults found that those who had more emotionally supportive mothers at 8-months old grew up to be more emotionally stable adults, with lower rates of anxiety and stress.

They help their kids do better in school
A 2018 study published in Pediatrics found that when parents read aloud to their babies and spent time playing with them as toddlers, the children had lower rates of hyperactivity and aggression once they started school.

Defiant behavior can waste valuable time in the classroom and disrupt the learning of all students, according to a report from the American Federation of Teachers. The group notes however, that when a child is less disruptive in class, the benefits often reverberate out to the entire class, and teachers can spend more time teaching.

An intriguing study published in 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology also found that children whose mothers believed they had control of their lives during pregnancy performed better in math and science once they started grade school than kids whose mothers believed that their destiny, or what happens to them is largely due to luck, fate or the power of others. The researchers pointed out that about half of this difference in school performance was due to parenting behaviors and lifestyles.

They inspire daughters and sons through their work
A mother’s positive impact is seen in many areas—including the work she does away from home.

A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that daughters of working mothers earned higher incomes and were more likely to hold supervisory positions than those whose mothers did not work outside the home. The researchers also found that men raised by working mothers tend to accept more responsibilities at home. The study showed these men are more likely to take on household chores and spend more time caring for family members.

This is not just an American phenomenon—it held true across 24 countries.

Motherhood isn’t a competition
For many women, the transition into the role of mother isn’t easy. Not all mothers are able to breastfeed successfully, form an instant bond with their newborn, manage the developmental or health challenges their children may face, or effectively juggle the demands of their job either inside or outside the home. As a society, the pressure we place on women to be “perfect” mothers may compel them to parent more intensively and be more reluctant to delegate parenting duties, according to a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

After surveying 169 working mothers with at least one child, the researchers found the pressure to be a perfect mother and avoid mistakes can increase women’s stress and trigger feelings of guilt, which could eventually lead to burnout. They also speculated that mothers could ease their burden if they’re willing and able to share parenting responsibilities and seek assistance from family and friends or hired help, such as housekeepers and babysitters.

Mothers have great potential to help shape the long-term health and wellbeing of the next generation. The researchers concluded however, that women should be reminded that it’s okay to not always live up to the intense standards of motherhood and to accept help from others when they need it.