Annual Research Review: All mothers are not created equal: neural and psychobiological perspectives on mothering and the importance of individual differences

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2011 Apr;52(4):368-97. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02306.x. Epub 2010 Oct 1.


Quality of mothering relies on the integrity of multiple physiological and behavioral systems and on two maternal factors, one proximal and one distal, that have a great impact on how a mother mothers: postpartum depression and early experiences. To mother appropriately requires the action of systems that regulate sensation, perception, affect, reward, executive function, motor output and learning. When a mother is at risk to engage in less than optimal mothering, such as when she is depressed or has experienced adversity in childhood, the function of many or all of maternal and related systems may be affected. In this paper, we will review what is currently known about the biological basis of mothering, with attention to literature on hormones but with a particular focus on recent advances in the fields of functional neuroimaging. Instead of discussing strictly 'maternal' brain imaging studies, we instead use a systems approach to survey important findings relevant to brain systems integral to and/or strongly related to the mothering experience: (a) social behavior; (b) reward and affect; (c) executive function; and (d) maternal behavior. We find that there are many commonalities in terms of the brain regions identified across these systems and, as we would expect, all are sensitive to the influence of, or function differently in the context of, depression and adverse early experience. It is likely that the similarity and cross-talk between maternal, affect and stress systems, observed behaviorally, hormonally and in the context of brain function, allows for mood disturbance and early adverse experiences to have a significant impact on the quality of mothering and the motivation to mother.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Depression, Postpartum / physiopathology
  • Executive Function
  • Female
  • Hormones / blood
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Parenting / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Psychopathology
  • Systems Theory
  • Theory of Mind


  • Hormones