Why Bonding With Your Baby Actually Matters
By Sonali Gupta
When I was a psychology student, I always wondered about the weight placed on early childhood experiences. Did they really have the power to shape our lives? I could never quite believe it. But in my practice, I have realized the importance of our early attachments, especially the mother and baby bond, or emotional bonding with our mothers, fathers, or other primary caregivers.* The evidence supports my own experience. Research by Dr. Cindy Hazan and Dr. Phillip Shaver shows how these early attachment patterns with our mothers shape and influence not just our ideas about romance, love, and relationships, but also how we choose to love.
The emotional bond that we share with our parents or primary caregivers remains a stability zone even in our adulthood. I find the thought of lying down in my mother’s lap, hearing her voice and the knowledge that she is a phone call away very comforting. The image itself brings a smile to my face, and makes me realize how deeply I feel connected and accepted. Often, clients in therapy say their mothers’ presence continues to calm them and give them a sense of belonging. On the other hand, some clients speak about how their mothers’ physical absence or insensitivity has negatively shaped their self-esteem and ideas about self-love.
John Bowlby was the first psychoanalyst who spoke about the power of the mother and child (or caregiver-child) bond, defining attachment as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Right from the time an infant is born, she begins the process of attachment, and as soon as she is held by the mother, their bonding begins. The infant seeks comfort in the parent’s touch, in being fed and in physical warmth. Both the verbal and nonverbal cues, along with the emotional warmth provided by the mother or primary caregiver, creates feelings of love and security.
Infants very early on begin to recognise their parent’s voice and respond by turning and looking for him or her and smiling. As the baby grows older, he will start cooing, in a nonverbal expression of joy, talking back with sounds, and actively reaching out to the parent with gestures to seek attention. The degree to which the parent can provide time for his food and be responsive and sensitive to his needs impacts the attachment pattern. As Dr. Siegel, renowned neuropsychiatrist and author of the book “The Whole Brain Child,” says that children need to be ‘Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure.’ These are four areas cover an infant’s physical and emotion needs. Meeting them timely and with sensitivity and warmth can help foster secure attachment even through adolescence.
The process of attachment is two-way. As the infant grows, he or she picks up and responds to emotional cues from the parent, often the mother, who generally becomes the secure base from whom children learn to emulate and demonstrate positive emotions such as happiness and excitement, and to develop a sense of curiosity.
Dr. Edward Tronick, a psychologist, demonstrated the effect a mother’s emotions and interactions can have on an infant in a series called The Still Face Experiment. The experiment starts with a mother animatedly interacting with her 6-month-old baby. She maintains eye contact, smiles, responds and laughs with the baby. Both of them seem to be totally attuned to each other. Then, she suddenly looks away, clears all emotion, and looks back at the baby with no facial expression. The baby is confused, smiles at the mother and then tries to draw her attention in a variety of ways. Finally, the baby starts crying as he feels nothing is working. The research demonstrates that a mother’s ability to handle her personal anxiety and stress, remain calm and be physically, emotionally present for the child adds to his overall well-being. It had far-ranging implications for our understanding of how depression, anxiety and even postpartum depression can have a ripple effect beyond the woman’s individual struggles.
Secure attachment patterns affect children not just emotionally, but biologically as well. Research by Dr. Daniel Siegel shows that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness, empathy and even regulation of emotions, is stronger in children who have secure patterns of attachment. As a result, children with secure attachment patterns demonstrate greater ability to understand and interact sensitively with other people.
The flip side of this has been documented by Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, who speaks about anxious-avoidant and anxious-ambivalent, insecure attachment patterns. Generally, children with anxious-avoidant have come to believe that they won’t receive attention or meaningful engagement from their parents. Anxious-ambivalent attachment, though, is generally the result of inconsistent parenting, which gives an infant mixed signals, leaving him feeling insecure based on his past experiences with the mother or primary caretaker.
As Bowlby states, “The initial relationship between self and the others serves a blueprint for all our future relationships.” A secure relationship with our mother, father, or primary caregivers teaches us about trust and helps us find hope in our future relationships. As parents, particularly when faced with the joys and turmoil an infant brings to a household, we must be particularly aware how simple interactions can have such long-lasting impacts.
*Studies cited in this article focus on the mother-child bond simply because the body of research around that relationship is deeper.