Scientific studies conclude something mothers everywhere have always intuitively known – that the unique love they have for their offspring is vitally important to their development. A mother’s love and nurturing even directly impacts the biological development of the child’s brain and central nervous system. In effect, mother and child are “hard-wired” for mutual love. The brain is like a template designed to await molding by its early environment. One researcher even wrote that hugs and kisses during the early critical periods assist in making neurons grow and connect properly with other neurons.
Throughout childhood, warm human love and touch generate an internal release of addicting and pleasurable opiates. Even teenagers (who may act as if they don’t need the parents at all) must receive ongoing neural synchrony – love – from the parents. The brain and heart appear literally designed for love, with happiness and even health depending on it.
The pituitary hormone, oxytocin, is present during all loving acts but most especially at birth where it serves to stimulate uterine contractions, and during nursing for the milk ejection reflex. It, along with the nursing hormone, prolactin, help create that intense feeling of love shared by mother and child. Endorphins are physiological chemicals that are also released in both the mother and child during loving contact. They create a feel-good high for both and thus play a critical role in encouraging affection and dependency.
When bonding fails, it is theorized that the absence of these pleasure chemicals can leave a void, making such children especially susceptible to drugs that can also release such pleasure chemicals. The stress hormone cortisol is also released when touch and love are lacking. Sensory deprivation in mother-absent children – a form of stress that stimulates the release of cortisol – can increase susceptibility to abnormalities such as depression, violence, substance abuse, and even impaired immune response.
The most natural way mothers deal with newborns in the majority of the world is with an in-arms approach. In more primitive cultures where mothers are barely allowed a break from work to give birth, babies are swaddled to the body creating constant contact and reassurance. This bathes tissues in love hormones and encourages development of healthy neural connections, particularly as the synaptic connections in the cortex develop for the first two years of life.
There is also heart-to-heart, quite literally, between mother and child. Heart muscle cells not only contract, but also communicate with one another. Isolating one cell from the heart in a petri dish causes it to lose its rhythm and begin to fibrillate until it dies. Putting two cells in proximity to one another causes them to synchronize and beat in unison. There is an unseen and as yet unmeasured communication between living cells. The beating of the mother’s heart and her breathing pattern coordinate in a critical way with the infant’s internal rhythms. This is part of what is known as a synchronizing hormonal flow that occurs between mother and child (directly from breast milk and also from loving contact and even from proximity and thought) that help to regulate vital rhythms in the child. Mothers instinctively place their babies to their left breast, keeping their two hearts close. The mother’s developed heart actually stimulates the newborn heart activating a dialogue between the two hearts and minds. Mother and child are more appropriately considered as one, rather than two separate entities as they bond while the child is being held and nursed.
These interesting links that science is revealing between mother and child are another proof that all life is holistic and intimately interconnected. The ideal holistic model is that which nature presents and it is clear that mother and child are meant to be intimate. Children cannot simply be cast off to be fed, clothed and housed as if that were enough. Society needs to take note of this important biology as more and more pressure is put on modern families and mothers to treat newborns as just another duty to schedule into the appointment book or to have serviced by a third party. By giving love the respect it deserves and making it the starting point of life, the odds are much greater that love will then blossom in children and be carried through to their children…and, who knows, perhaps continue on to the world at large. We could use a lot of that.
Janov, Biology of Love, 2000, Prometheus Books
Odent, The Scientification of Love, 1999, Free Assn Books
Pearce, Evolution’s End,1993, Harper
Amini et al, A General Theory of Love, 2001, Vintage Books.