NEW YORK — If you are taking care of a baby, you had better refrain from checking e-mails and text messages on your smartphone, as researchers have found that fragmented and chaotic maternal care can disrupt proper brain development in infants, which can lead to emotional disorders later in life.

The researchers discovered that the erratic maternal care of infants can increase the likelihood of risky behaviors, drug-seeking tendencies and depression in adolescence and adult life.

“It is known that a vulnerability to emotional disorders, such as depression, derives from interactions between our genes and the environment, especially during sensitive developmental periods,” said Tallie Baram of the University of California, Irvine.

“Our work builds on many studies showing that maternal care is important for future emotional health. It shows that it is not how much maternal care that influences adolescent behavior but the avoidance of fragmented and unpredictable care that is crucial,” Baram noted. 

“We might wish to turn off our mobile phone when caring for a baby and instead be predictable and consistent,” Baram said.

The researchers studied the emotional outcomes of adolescent rats reared in either calm or chaotic environments and used mathematical approaches to analyze the mothers’ nurturing behaviors.

While the study was conducted with rodents, its findings implied that when mothers are nurturing their infants, numerous everyday interruptions — even those as seemingly harmless as phone calls and text messages — can have a long-lasting impact.

The researchers showed that consistent rhythms and patterns of maternal care seem to be crucially important for the developing brain, which needs predictable and continuous stimuli to ensure the growth of robust neuron networks.

The brain’s dopamine-receptor pleasure circuits are not mature in newborns and infants, and these circuits are stimulated by predictable sequences of events, which seem to be critical for their maturation, Baram stated.

The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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