A mother has the ability to soothe injury, dry tears and calm anxiety all with the sound of her voice. Does she harness a magical force, or is there really some hard science behind a mom’s stress-busting tones?
Many would argue that a child’s relationship with her mother begins in the womb, long before birth. Whether you subscribe to that belief or not, it’s tough to argue with the immediate and deep connection established between a mother and her baby quickly after birth. “Newborn infants show a preference for their mother's voice, and they also prefer that familiar sound while still in the womb, per a study by Barbara Kisilevsky at Queens University in Ontario,” says Heather Hans, a psychotherapist, licensed social worker, holistic healer and single mom. “The voice is the physical representation of the connection between mother and child and can be felt as a physical force.”
Sometimes it’s not just the words but the tone of a mother’s voice that can calm a child and perhaps even speed healing of premature babies, for example.
“In the case of a biological mother, it is a voice we heard in utero,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula ("Dr. Ramani"), a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. “In the case of all mothers — the pitch and tone of her voice is something we heard when we were pre-verbal and it coo-ed and soothed us, and while we may not remember her doing it, that sound can still be associated with comfort and soothing.” Furthermore, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that preadolescent girls exposed to stress showed lower cortisol (also called the “stress hormone”) and increased oxytocin (the “love hormone”) levels after physical and/or verbal contact with their mothers.
Patti Wood is an expert in nonverbal communication and author of several books, including SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma. She understands why even as adults, we reach out to our mothers during times of stress or difficulty. “If your mother’s voice comforts you, increasing the feel-good chemical oxytocin and reducing cortisol, it makes sense that you would seek it out,” she says. Dr. Ramani agrees saying, “Just like certain smells are soothing because they evoke our childhood home, so too can a voice — as auditory senses were a way we oriented to the world as infants and children — and words and sounds were how our mothers comforted us.”
Often mothers don’t appreciate the power of their words — both the content and the tone. But knowing how truly impactful a mother’s words can be on a child should make us all think twice about the way we communicate with our kids. “I think that this is a wakeup call for current parents — strive to make your voice the voice they internalize and [that] will soothe your children when they are older,” says Dr. Ramani. “My mother spoke to me in an Indian language called Telegu, and although she and I have a somewhat strained relationship at times, there are still times that her Telegu words still soothe me like nothing else — at a primitive level.”
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