There is so much more to bonding with your baby and your partner than meets the eye. Closeness, touching, and relating to your baby all help to develop a smart, well-adjusted child. Plus, these endearing moments help to relieve stress in parents and strengthen their relationship. The science of family is a fascinating look at how affection brings a family together.
The science of familial closeness predominantly revolves around a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is mostly released in the brain from skin-to-skin contact and through people, places and events that we’ve had positive experiences with. It is actually quite addictive and people who elicit the release of oxytocin in our brains are the people we find ourselves drawn to. A pregnant woman multiplies her oxytocin receptors during pregnancy, making her highly sensitive to the release of the hormone. The receptors increase in the area of the brain that control maternal behaviors. The onset of labor is actually caused by a rush of oxytocin and vaginal delivery causes a release of even more. The baby has also had a rush of oxytocin during birth, which causes both baby and mother to feel calm, less pain and connected. The odor of the mother’s nipples is similar to the odor of the amniotic fluid, the place where the baby had most of its oxytocin releases, which is how the baby is naturally attracted to them. The baby right after birth finds the closeness of mother to be reminiscent of the womb. The heartbeat, warmth and gurgles of mother’s digestion all send calming signals to the baby. Nursing after birth causes another surge of oxytocin and this chemical is responsible for the “let-down” response that causes the breasts to release milk. During breastfeeding, the release of oxytocin causes uterine contractions that help dispel clots and blood and bring the uterus back to its original size. Each nursing session or any subsequent contact between mother and baby produces a release of oxytocin in the brain for both parties, strengthening their bond. The baby not only produces oxytocin in response to closeness, but also receives it from the mother through breast milk. The mother’s brain slowly becomes hardwired with maternal behaviors as a result of the constant stream. It causes the mother to become more caring, eager to please, and intuitive to the needs and emotions of others. Her priorities no longer surround attracting a mate. During surges of oxytocin the mother will find a preference towards the male that is present. Fathers too get the benefits of oxytocin towards the end of the mate’s pregnancy and from interactions with the baby. The increased oxytocin levels cause him to be more caring of the baby and more affectionate with his mate.
Vasopressin is another hormone that affects the father and more significantly so than the mother. Vasopressin has been called “the monogamy hormone” because animal studies have shown that it encourages the father to stay with one mate and to be more affectionate with the baby.
It’s also been shown that estrogen and prolactin levels rise in fathers and are accompanied with a drop in testosterone (the hormone responsible for aggression and sexual prowess). These changes soften the man’s demeanor and serve to keep him closer to home.
Prolactin is released in the mother as a response to suckling and promotes milk production. It normally comes out when healthy people sleep and appears to maintain reproductive organs and the immune system. Prolactin has the ability to make the mother feel relaxed. Levels of this hormone rise in the father from spending time with the infant and also during his mate’s pregnancy. Eventually, parenthood causes prolactin to be released in the male as a response to intruders or threats. The hormone is usually accompanied with stress in non-parents and becomes a dominant chemical during parenthood. The increased release of prolactin in parents causes a drop in testosterone and sexual motivation as a result. It forces the parents to bond with each other in different ways and focus more attention on their infant.
The elevation of prolactin in parents stimulates the opioid system, further enhancing the family bonds. Opioids are pleasure hormones that resemble morphine by reducing sensations of pain. Positive touches and interactions cause the release of opioids, which leads the infant or parent to become drawn to particular people, tastes, odors and even objects. The mere sight of a person who has elicited an opioid response causes a surge after some time. When a child is hurt, the touches of a parent can help release opioids that reduce pain. We do develop a natural threshold for opioids over time but high levels of oxytocin actually inhibit opioid tolerance. A drop in opioids can cause a baby or a parent to become upset or crave affection from the family.
Right after birth, a baby’s brain is developing considerably. Interactions with people help to determine which parts of the brain are encouraged to grow and which parts are unnecessary and to be discarded. Unfortunately, the baby’s brain is strongly affected by trauma. High cortisol levels during the ages of 0-3 can cause the brain to be on a hair-trigger response so that any reminder of past stressful events causes a wave of stress hormones. Studies have found that stress impairs optimal brain development and can cause damage to the nerves in the hippocampus, leading to intellectual deficits and bad memory. Stress causes a hyper-metabolic state in the brain which can lead to nausea and vomiting. It can also cause a numb, compliant or avoiding nature. Children and babies who do not get physically close with their parents are more likely to develop anti-social behaviors, aggression, difficulty forming bonds, mental illness and are less likely to handle stress effectively. The release of cortisol during infancy in response to stress can lead to elevated responses to stress throughout life as well as higher blood pressure and heart rate. For these reasons, prolonging crying or feelings of insecurity in a baby could be detrimental.
Bonding and affection give your baby the closeness she/he needs to feel secure. Family closeness ultimately allows a family to branch out and interact with the world without fear. Reduced stress, a more positive state of mind, and strong family relationships are all great reasons to be close with the people that make up your family.
How does your family bond?
What is Attachment Parenting? [NaturalFamilyOnline]
Stress in Infancy [TheBabyBond]About Oxytocin [PsychCentral]
The two faces of oxytocin [APA]Stretch Marks for Dads [Slate]
Postnatal Brain Development [BrainHealthandPuzzles]How To Build A Baby's Brain [TheDailyBeast]
Effects of Stress on Brain Development [BetterBrainsforBabies]Smell: The Sense Responsible for the Miracle of Life [serendip]
The Making of a Modern Dad [PsychologyToday]