By Patty Onderko
Groundbreaking new parenting research shows that a strong emotional attachment between a mother and her baby may help prevent diseases, boost immunity, and enhance a child’s IQ.
You take your baby to the pediatrician for her regular check-ups, vaccines, and at the first sign of a fever. As parents you keep her away from runny-nose friends and steer clear of the sun and you babyproof your home and gently bandage her boo-boos. All to make sure your child grows up healthy and strong. But compelling new research is showing that the strength of your emotional bond with your baby may well trump all of those other measures you take to help her thrive.
The cuddle connection
There are decades of evidence to back up Dr. Chopra’s claims. In one study from Ohio State University, rabbits that were cuddled by researchers were protected against the artery-clogging effects of a high-cholesterol diet. The love and attention affected the rabbits’ hormone levels, the study authors concluded, helping them withstand heart disease. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that some female rats took more time and care to lick their infant pups than others; the pups that were licked frequently grew up to be less stressed and more adventurous in temperament, while pups that weren’t groomed as much exhibited nervous, stressed-out behavior. And yet another study, published in Pediatrics, found that premature babies who were stroked gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those who were not. Such skin-to-skin contact (known as kangaroo care) has been shown to have other health benefits for preemies, too.
It’s well known that the nipple stimulation that occurs when a baby nurses causes a hormone called oxytocin to be released in the mom, which in turn triggers milk let-down. But oxytocin is also called the “love hormone” because it’s produced during orgasm and other affectionate moments. In fact, oxytocin behaves in the brain much the same way that morphine does; it turns on our “reward” center, easing pain, making us feel good, and causing us to crave that emotional high again and again. Women who don’t breastfeed, or choose to eventually switch to or supplement with formula, happily do not miss out on the “love drug.” Simply gazing into your baby’s eyes while bottle-feeding or just snuggling or massaging also unleashes the feel-good hormones in both of you.
There’s more evidence that we’re hardwired to connect with our kids: Pheromones — the chemicals we secrete to attract a partner — are also secreted by our babies, ensuring that we’re similarly smitten with them. In one study, 90 percent of moms were able to identify their newborns by scent alone after having spent as little as ten minutes with them. When the moms spent an hour with their babies, 100 percent of them correctly distinguished their own baby’s smell from the smell of other infants.
A baby recognizes his mother’s scent, too. Last year, researchers in Japan found that infants who smelled their own mother’s milk while undergoing a routine heel-stick procedure exhibited fewer signs of distress than babies who were exposed to the odor of another mother’s milk, formula, or nothing at all. The mere scent of their mother’s breast milk was enough to calm the newborns and ease pain. Here’s an interesting aside: The act of kissing may have evolved as an affectionate gesture because it puts our nose in direct contact with the base of our partner’s nostrils, where pheromones are generated.
Just as scent motivates you to care for your child and motivates your child to stay close to you, so too does a smile. In a recent study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, brain MRIs were taken of women while they looked at photos of their own children and of other kids making sad, happy, and neutral faces. The scans found that when a woman saw a photo of her own child, the parts of her brain associated with rewards processing (meaning they make you feel good!) were activated, and even more so when she saw photos of her child smiling. It’s all very primitive: Mom make Baby smile, Mom get reward, Mom want to make Baby smile again.
The long and short of it: We’re designed to become addicted to our offspring. “The mother-child bond assures infant survival in terms of protection, nutrition, and care,” says Francesca D’Amato, M.D., a behavioral neuroscientist in Rome and a prominent bonding researcher.
The soothing solution
But what about nature? Don’t genes have the central role in a child’s physical and emotional development? Well, maybe. But huge strides have been made recently in the field of epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors — everything from what you eat to how much you exercise to the amount of pollution you’re exposed to — can physically alter certain genes, causing them to, in very crude terms, switch “on” or “off.” Epigenetics explains why one identical twin might develop an inheritable disease while the other does not — turning the whole nature vs. nurture debate on its head.