Attachment: Babies and Bonding

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

You were born to connect – we all were. The popularity of Twitter and texting attest to our human appetite for connection.

Before this modern time our forebears were a part of the food chain (very different from being a Costco member), and the cruel and relentless reality was that a baby left unattended was a nice light snack for some other creature. Over the millions of evolving years, any wee natural tendency that supported keeping everyone closer meant better safety and survival, and any genetic basis for that tendency was befriended by natural selection. This genetic basket of tendencies, polished through experience from birth, is so much of what is essentially our humanness.

As babies we were never passive. Nature has preloaded us with lots of different brain programs (thanks, evolution!) that help with bonding. Don’t be fooled by those cute, fuzzy blankets because research shows that newborns are working the room and schmoozing within minutes of birth. If flattery will get us anywhere, and if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then you can bet that babies are shameless flatterers. For example, in one study someone stood over 18 hour old babies and either opened their mouth really wide or stuck their tongue way out. The babies were then videoed for the next 24 hours. You guessed it – the newborns imitated what they had seen. Our baby brains ‘know’.

A bunch of studies have shown that babies prefer their mother’s voices. But the schmoozing keeps going. The cries of newborns have an accent! A recent paper reports that the first vocalizations of newborns show that they’ve been listening and learning from before birth. French newborns cry with a rising melodic pattern, and German newborns more often deliver a falling melody, and these melodies are typical of their ‘resident’ language. This suggests that infants are on to elements of language in the womb, and are ‘wired’ to copycat.

Touch is a building block of bonding. A study in the journal Birth followed 176 mom-baby pairs who had different degrees of contact immediately after birth. They found that two hours or less of skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth (as compared to nursery placement or swaddled contact) made a huge difference up to one year later. One year! Those moms and babies were closer and were just getting along better. That simple, quick and early contact during that ‘sensitive period’ is like a super nutrient that gets everything going the right way, right from the outset.

Psychiatrist John Bowlby famously observed in the 1950s that babies were messed up by a separation from mom. Before then, babies were separated from their mothers during a hospitalization just as we leave our cars for service, to be picked up later. Not so hot for a developing self.

Our humanness is shaped by our human connections. The infant-parent bond that begins before birth is our signing on to something like an intense university education with diaper breaks and frequent naps. The course work is all about you and what it means to be human, and the quality of your education is desperately tied to the health and history of your teachers, Mom and Dad, and anyone else who’s there. Decades of research loudly declare that our mental health and emotional intelligence are profoundly influenced from birth by the quality of our relationships with mom and dad. The first year of life greatly predicts the physical, psychological and social roads we go down. The bond, the attachment, is nature’s kitchen, preparing a self.

Imitation, connection, touch – it’s all about love and attention. It turns out that it’s just nature’s way. We’ll come back to this in future articles to look at why attachment and quality parenting matter.