baby

Babysitting doesn't just give us temporary access to cute babies. It changes our brains.

I. Love. Babies.

Any kind of baby. Big babies, small babies, bald babies, full-haired babies. I goddam love babies. And ever since I can remember, I’ve loved looking after them. The concept of babysitting is baffling to me: People pay you to look after their babies when I would pay them. There are just so many benefits to babysitting.

Like dressing babies up in cute outfits;

Ohhh, now what are you wearing? Image via Bad Neighbors 2/Universal Studios.

Watching them as they try to say things when they don't have the words yet;

'Goo goo ga ga'. Image via A Series of Unfortunate Events/Dreamworks.

And trying to stop them from getting into mischief.

Hehe don't go running around the city now! Image via Baby's Day Out/20th Century Fox.
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It's common sense that spending time looking after babies will prepare you for parenthood, by building your confidence and establishing some basic caregiving skills. But recent research has shown that if you plan to be a parent someday, babysitting could be even more important than first thought.

A recent study published in Developmental Psychobiology claims that babysitting dramatically affects female brain chemistry and behaviour, in a way that prepares us to be parents. It's been known for some time that pregnancy and childbirth changes female neurobiology, and now, it looks like babysitting has a similar effect.

The experiment at Michigan State University involved housing one group of 24 young female rats with unrelated rat pups, and another group of 24 young female rats with pup-size pencil erasers. The rats who had caregiving experience with the (real) pups had significantly higher concentrations of an enzyme known as TPH2, which is associated with increased serotonin, a chemical related to mood and some social behaviors. These rats showed more 'maternal skills' and decreased anxiety behaviours, compared to the control group.

According to the authors, the chemical composition of the rats' brains who had cared for the rat pups, "were similar to what would be found after reproductive experience."

Watch The Motherish team confess their first thoughts upon seeing their newborn. Post continues after video. 

The study also found that the duration of babysitting was an important factor in determining the impact on brain chemistry. For rats, two weeks was enough to produce substantial change, whereas three days was not.

So, what does this mean? As a seasoned babysitter, do I have an incidental qualification in 'being a mum'? Will babysitting give me 'baby brain'? Should I be babysitting rat pups? *shudders*

No. No one needs to go near rat pups. The authors say that in mammals;

"...while pregnancy and parturition (in lay terms: childbirth) help ensure that the suite of behaviours necessary to care for offspring are present in new mothers, alloparenting (in lay terms: babysitting) serves as an alternative route that can help heighten females' later maternal responsiveness, perfect their mothering skills, and elevate their emotional state."

While it's nice to think I've prepared myself for parenthood by hanging out with cute babies, I do think it's time we shared the focus between men and women when it comes to parenting. Without the possibility of becoming pregnant and giving birth (curse you human biology), encouraging men to engage more willingly with babysitting and childcare could be an important way to prepare them for being dads.

And I'm sure the female rats think it's about time they shared the caregiving duties when it comes to their rat pups.

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