We already know that playtime is essential for helping young babies to grow, learn, and develop social cues, but little is known about the effects this type of activity has on mothers, and what, if anything, happens neurologically when mums play along with their little ones.
Now, a new study is shedding some light on what goes on in the brain when both mum and baby engage in playtime activities. According to Dr. Sam Wess, lead author of the study from the University of East London, until now, almost everything scientists know about early learning has only come from studying the brains of babies in isolation. Wess' study, however, monitored the interactions of both mum and baby together, and the results were surprising.
Wess and his team found that baby brains actually take the lead when it comes to brain activity during playtime. While infants show bursts of high-frequency brain activity when they are playing, so do their mothers. In fact, those similar bursts of activity found in mums' brains actually take cues from their babies.
"We know that, when an adult plays jointly together with a child, this helps the child to sustain attention to things," said Wess. "Our findings suggested that, when a baby pays attention to things, the adult's brain tracks and responds to her infant's looking behavior - as if her infants' actions are echoed in the parent's brain activity."
Wess also added that when the parent's brain is more responsive, the child holds their attention for a longer period of time.
The study involved taking dual electroencephalography (EEG) readings from 12-month-old infants as they played by themselves, as well as from babies and mothers who were playing together with toys. Researchers then recorded activity in the baby's brain and their mother's brain at the same time. As a result, they were able to analyze the changes in their brain activity.
"We were able to see how [these changes] reflected their own or each other's behavior while they were playing together," said Wess.
Study co-author, Dr. Victoria Leong of Cambridge University, said that while their results are certainly exciting, the study actually raises more questions than it answers.
For example, Leong said that the study is unable to tell whether some parents are more responsive to their babies than others - and if so, why. She added that because the study only looked at mothers, there was also the question of whether or not fathers may be different in how they respond neurally to their babies.
"Our findings are exciting, but there is a lot more to investigate about how, exactly, this type of neural responsiveness by parents may help young children to learn," she said.