Flipping the Baby Switch

img_2348-1Rewind to last night. It was bedtime. My infant daughter was screaming and struggling in my lap while I tried to rock her to sleep. She pulled and twisted the skin on my face. She sunk her tiny teeth into my shoulder and chest. Exasperated, I rose from the rocker and started pacing around the nursery. Her tense little body instantly relaxed. Within ten seconds she was quiet and still. Within two minutes she was asleep.

The scene was not unusual for our household. Even as a newborn, my daughter was easy to upset and hard to soothe. When nothing else worked and I was about to lose my mind I’d get up and walk with her. Often the results were nothing short of miraculous. Imagine going from 100 miles per hour to zero in a snap. For those who recall the child android Vicki on the ‘80s TV show Small Wonder, think of the times someone flipped the off-switch on her back. That’s what it’s like when I walk with my daughter. Our aimless walking flips a switch somewhere inside of her. But how does the switch work? And why does she have one in the first place? A study published in Current Biology last month helps to explain this curious facet of infant behavior.

The head scientist behind the study was Dr. Kumi Kuroda at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan. As she described in an interview with ScienceNOW, she became interested in the topic when she noticed that she could calm her own newborn son by carrying him. She later tested 12 other newborns with their mothers and found that they behaved like her son. Overall, the effect was rapid and dramatic. Some babies stopped crying as soon as their mothers began to walk with them. The rest cried less and were less shrill when they did cry. The babies also moved less and had lower heart rates while they were being carried.

To study the biological mechanisms behind this remarkable calming response, Dr. Kuroda and her colleagues turned to mice. They showed that mouse pups have a similar response when carried by their mothers. Mouse moms carry their pups by the scruff of their necks. When carried, mouse pups less than 20 days old stop wriggling. Their heart rate slows and they stop crying out. (Like most mouse vocalizations, baby mouse cries are ultrasonic). They also draw their legs in when carried, making their bodies more compact for toting around.

Kuroda and colleagues investigated several physiological aspects of the calming response in mice. Only a few of these experiments are probably relevant for infants, since human babies don’t assume a compact position like carried mouse pups do. One looked for the triggers that make carried pups stop squirming. The scientists anesthetized the neck skin of baby mice and found that these animals wriggled more than untreated mouse pups when carried. They got the same result when they overdosed pups with vitamin B6 before testing. (Vitamin B6 overdose causes animals and humans to lose the sense of their body position and movement.) The upshot? For a mouse pup to stop wriggling when carried it must 1) sense that it’s being lifted and 2) sense that something is pulling on its neck skin. Take either sense away and the calming response disappears. My daughter may draw on similar senses to trigger her miraculous stillness while carried. (Only if you replace neck pulling with the pressure of my arms around her, of course. I don’t carry her by her neck skin, I swear.)

The scientists also wondered why a baby’s heart rate drops when it’s picked up and carried. To test this in mice, they gave pups a drug that turns down the parasympathetic nervous system (the set of nerves that return the body to a calm state after arousal). Pups treated with the drug still stopped wriggling when lifted, but their heart rates didn’t drop as they do in untreated pups. So while the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the carried pup’s (and possibly infant’s) heartbeat, it can’t take credit for other features of the calming response.

Clearly this calming response is more complicated than it seems. Many of my daughter’s brain areas, neural pathways, and sensory mechanisms were working in concert to soothe her last night as I walked her in circles. But why does she have this complex reaction to carrying in the first place? Grateful parents might imagine that the calming response evolved to keep us from going crazy, but unless going crazy involves committing infanticide, this explanation doesn’t hold water. Evolution doesn’t care whether parents are happy or well rested or have time to watch Game of Thrones. It only cares whether our offspring survive.

Dr. Kuroda and her colleagues propose that the calming response helped parents escape dangerous situations while protecting their young. According to this logic, calmer carried babies meant faster escapes and higher rates of survival. Certainly if you were running from a wild beast or a member of a rival village, holding a struggling infant might slow you down. Of course holding any infant would slow you down and it’s not clear that sprinting with a struggling newborn is much harder than lugging one that’s asleep.  The paper’s authors present little evidence to support their proposal, particularly in the context of human evolution. They point to a minor result with their mice that doesn’t easily translate to human behavior. In effect, the jury’s still out.

There are other possible explanations for the calming response, ones that don’t involve predators outrunning parents. Shushing can calm crying babies too, probably because it simulates an aspect of their environment in the womb (in this case,  physiological noise). The same could be true of walking with infants. The mothers in the Kuroda study held their babies against their chest and abdomen, which is also how I hold my daughter when I walk to soothe her. The type of movement she feels in that position is probably similar to the rocking and jostling she felt as a fetus in utero whenever I walked. If so, the calming response might be a result of early learning and comfort by association – a nice thought when you consider the gory alternative.

Each year at the end of May we find ourselves as far as possible from Thanksgiving Day. It can be something of a thankfulness drought. This May I am thankful for women in science and maternity leaves, computer-generated dragons and ’80s sitcom androids. And like Vicki’s parents, I am profoundly thankful that my daughter came furnished with an off-switch. Whatever the reason why.

___

Photo credit: Sabin Dang

Esposito G, Yoshida S, Ohnishi R, Tsuneoka Y, Rostagno Mdel C, Yokota S, Okabe S, Kamiya K, Hoshino M, Shimizu M, Venuti P, Kikusui T, Kato T, & Kuroda KO (2013). Infant Calming Responses during Maternal Carrying in Humans and Mice. Current biology : CB, 23 (9), 739-45 PMID: 23602481

6 responses

  1. I just discovered your blog, quite haphazardly by scrolling through the WordPress Reader listing under “Science.” Frankly, yours was one of the few truly qualified to be listed under “Science.” You have a solid portfolio of really engaging writing that I’ll enjoy exploring over time. As another neuroscientist interested in science writing, I particularly like the fact that you are approaching your posts with a scholar’s penchant for attribution and analysis. Yet, you are also offering your own personal perspective in your writing, as in the present case in anchoring your post in the story about your infant daughter. As a father of two, and a grandfather of two, I can relate! In any case, I certainly plan to send visitors your way from my own blog, dissectingpublicscience.com.

  2. Maybe this behaviour is a reflex which was learned in fetal age. Usually, when a pregnant women is active, then the fetus does not move very much (this is self protective) – but, when the mother take a rest then the fetus is usually very active (especially in the last months of a pregnancy).
    When the mother walks, then this reflex is re-activated again

    • Interesting. In the post I suggest that it may reflect fetal learning, but I think of it as a learned soothing response rather than self protective. At this point, any guess is as good as the next. I hope the team will devote more experiments to figuring that out.

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