The Science of Mother's Day

Some sad orphans
Some surprising rats
Those orphans again
Day care blues
Mice and men


An infant monkey from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center.

Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Archives.


No laughing matter
Ten years ago, when foreign doctors and journalists first entered Romanian orphanages, they compared those horrific human warehouses to a "gulag for children" inhabited by thousands of innocent infants.

There was no laughter, no fun and no games. Three-year-olds didn't cry and didn't speak.

Since the caretakers had to care for up to 20 infants each, they had time only to change diapers and prop bottles in the cribs. In any case, the caretakers were trained to care for physical, not emotional, needs.

an infant monkey
Yet the orphans' even had trouble in the physical realm. Their growth was stunted. They silently cowered and continually rocked -- eerie behavior that resembled monkeys raised in isolation by Harry Harlow. It was Harlow, a psychologist who started studying mother-infant relationships in monkeys at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1930s, who proved the centrality of touch to normal primate development.

Simply supplying room and board will not suffice.

The tragic Romanian "experiment" expanded on Harlow's demonstration by proving -- as if proof were needed -- that a healthy human childhood requires contact and stimulation from adults.

In the spirit of Mother's Day, The Why Files wants to know:

How does separation from the mother affect a baby rat?

What do we know about those neglected Romanian orphans?

Does American day care harm children?

Is anybody paying attention to dad?

To a rat pup, grooming is a big deal...

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The Why Files
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