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.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s take a break from our usual consideration of stress and the human mind and travel to a new topic – holidays.

The beach, the backyard, the summer fair, the road, the lake all take us away from the routine of work and school, interrupting the rigid patterns of life. The sense of relief that comes from legitimately vacating the stresses of work schedules, pressures and demands makes summer holidays a cherished landmark.

Family vacations contribute to healthy family functioning. Healthy holiday-time together acts as a kind of glue, promoting family bonding and communication and the emergence of new identities (Hey, mom actually knows how to have fun!). This cohesiveness isn’t some sort of mushy frill that we can do without. Family bonding is deeply healthy for teens and parents alike, reducing the incidence of just about every calamity you can imagine. Pre-holiday, as the members of a family dwell in their individual ruts, the barriers from work and school, technology and emotional avoidance chop a family up. The healthy holiday shifts the focus to shared experience if not to each other, giving time and space for loved ones to reconnect, joke around and open up.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to ‘healthy’ holiday time. Many people see holiday time as an opportunity to set personal bests for getting drunk and stoned or worse. Addiction researchers are quite concerned by the impact that binging holidays have both in the short and long term, particularly with young people. During resort holidays, alcohol and drug use increases significantly for both habitual users and those who refrain at home. That hangovers just get worse as the drinking days wear on says our bodies detest the toxicity, and that a holiday from the holiday is needed.

But increased intoxication is not restricted to any one age group. Advertisers have been clearly teaching us that the good life requires a flow of alcohol and, by extension, drugs. And so vacationers obediently shop the LCBO. While sun screen protects us from the raw rays, protection from the high levels of social pressure isn’t so easy. We wish to belong, and shading ourselves from the social demands to get wasted can be a challenge. Reminding ourselves often of why we’re taking a holiday is one way to keep to ourselves on our own path.

Does a holiday do a good job of smoothing and soothing? Studies have shown that levels of stress and burnout do decrease heartily during a holiday. For the most part we feel better physically and emotionally, sleep better, get along better. For how long does the relief last? Not as long as we’d like. After 3 weeks most of us are back where we left off, indicating that relief fades as quickly as a tan. But the more recuperation we experience during the holiday, the more we’re protected against post-vacation workload stress.

I find it interesting that studies show that more conscientious workers have better moods during holidays, as if taking a break with a clear conscience is cleaner. Here, the rich just get richer. So to get the most out of our holiday it looks like we should get our work done, tie up the loose ends, and resist starting the holiday before it begins.

When you’re planning your upcoming holiday, consider the opportunity at hand. If you’re taking time with your family, look at how you might use that time together for togetherness. I found no research telling us that how much money we spend matters. Whether it’s playing monopoly or travelling to new places, it’s how we vacation that matters.

The Genuis of Women

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

I marvel at my secretaries and at my wife, at their necromancer memory, at their ability to somehow organize office or Christmas chaos, to thrive when there’s too much to do and to complain otherwise, at knowing where my file or the ketchup is. And then there’s spare brain juice for simultaneously making a zillion other observations and judgements, with kindness all the way. Guys, we’re in the presence of genius.

Evolution delivered the big and spatially competent males who could roam far and wide to snag meat, shelter and materials and, at home, to provide protection, to tinker and make tools and to divine answers to the questions about survival. The lesser muscled females worked the portfolio of life nearer home, which included the minor matter of offspring, food organization, safety, social equality and getting along, and knowing the immediate surrounds and contingencies.

Today, our Stone Age mind-brains may set up a David vs. Goliath story in many families. Female brains have got the goods for managing much of the complexity of raising a family, while muscles matter less. Verbal fluency, knowing how everyone is feeling and doing, being graced with a frighteningly detailed and always handy diary-mind, and doing the work of a bees nest give women the nod.

Sex differences are many. Male and female brains show different motor (movement) and visual abilities depending on how far away the action is. Females work more skilfully in near (here) space and men in far (there) space.

In critical ways male and female brains appear to use different strategies to achieve the same result. For example, male rats and male humans are the same (ladies, don’t get too smug just yet, there’s more) in that they depend on directional (left-right, north-south) cues to navigate space. Here’s the equalizer – female rats and female humans both work better with positional (beside the bus station) cues.

And the superabsorbent female brain unintentionally soaks up information about their immediate surrounds while male brains, um, well, you know.

More to the point, neurobiological evidence indicates that females automatically attend to emotion in most of its forms, while men’s brains seem pre-dialed in to anything related to power.

Socialization adds to these differences. A baby in a blue blanket is handled in a manly way. The same baby in a pink blanket receives gentle coos and cuddles.

Males are taught to restrict their experience and expression of vulnerable emotions (like sadness, fear or guilt), while females more often receive acceptance and support. As a result, men have a harder time identifying and tolerating feelings, which may underlie the fact that men are way more violent than women.

Lots of studies have shown that women prefer working with people and that men prefer working with things. So while young guys perfect specific skills, like their slap shot and free throw, females work on nurturing (dolls), values (chick flicks) and communicating.

The female mind can be highly attuned to inner lives, theirs and others. No wonder men feel some disadvantage when the complexities of raising a family arrive. The ancient residue of Father Knows Best calls for men to lead, but the genius of women places the competence to stick handle the complexity of family more often with them.

A recent paper in the Journal of Individual Differences showed that men overestimate their abilities more than women overestimate theirs. What makes men think they’re so smart remains a good question.

Another study found that the biggest predictor of marital success was the husband’s willingness to readily buy-in to his wife’s judgment. So it’s good advice to be humble anytime, and particularly when you’re in the presence of genius!

When We Suffer Abusive Treatment

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lykken of the University of Minnesota says that the evidence tells us “that most of the 1.4 million American men currently languishing in prison would have grown up to be tax-paying citizens and acceptable neighbours if they had been switched in the nursery and sent home with a mature, law-abiding married couple rather than with their biological parent or parents”. By “mature” he’s referring to parents who love and care for and protect their children.

The complex harm to psychological development caused by child abuse and neglect sets a course for a big range of big problems – relationship instability, violence, addictions, physical and mental health problems, you name it.

The neglect and abuse of children is a product of generations of conditioning. If you want to shine a light on why a parent may be rarely or persistently abusive or neglectful, you’ll often glimpse the next layer of insight by looking at the parent’s parents, and then at their parents.

When we, as children, suffer abusive treatment and a life that feels dangerous we all reflexively use what we have to protect ourselves and to just survive. Leaving home or calling a responsive grown up is not always an option that a distressed child can muster. Kids are often left to their own meagre adaptations to manage their life.

One protective adaptation is for kids to pay careful and ongoing attention to the abusive parent. Kids can then shift their own behaviour in order to modulate the state of mind of the distressed parent. By “being good” somehow, some control and safety may be had. And the felt reason is to be safe, to be accepted, if not loved.

But vigilance is not just something someone does now and then – it becomes a way of living born of the need to be safe. So paying rigid attention to the Other becomes a deeply ingrained pattern for distressed kids, a habit that we don’t even know we’re strengthening through repetition. It’s automatic. And we grow up that way.

To not pay attention to the Other but to pay attention to yourself can be dangerous because when the guard gets let down you might be open to a new kind of attack. Scolding “What’s wrong with you?” would do the job, but sharper sticks are easily at hand. The internal reaction to one’s own emotion then becomes complicated instead of being one of acceptance. Kids may be ‘taught’ to feel ashamed of their own emotions, and so there can develop an internal sense that our own emotion is wrong, bad, awful, disgusting.

And so yet another way we commonly protect ourselves is by keeping our emotion hidden even from ourselves. Children experiencing frequent fear may use and over use their natural ability to space out, slipping away from awareness to nothingness. No feeling, no problem. An emergent problem here is that children don’t learn about their emotions and how to tolerate, regulate and know them, a problem which can extend through adulthood.

These and so many other ways of protecting ourselves and trying to get needs met become an automatic way of life that we carry on into adulthood. The emotional infrastructure from childhood results in the understandable tendency to live our adult life with other people in ways that are similar to our developmental history.

Our development doesn’t end with childhood. Hopefully those unfortunate early relationships will be supplemented by the loving aunt or teacher or friend’s mother, or by later healthy relationships that help to undo the earlier abusive conditioning. It is indeed never too late to face and to work on your life.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What Scrooge might have said but which Dickens wrote elsewhere (A Tale of Two Cities) seems to apply to the Christmas season for many of us: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.

The Christmas season is trans-sensory. The music, lights, aromas, tastes and new winter’s chill encourage heart-glow. Messages bloom about togetherness. The scent of love and goodwill mingles with mistletoe. People come together to celebrate their knowing of one another and the bounty of family and friendship.

Our culture has taught us since birth a felt sense of what is important for Christmas and the Holiday Season. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that what we actually do and get involved in and realize during this time of year is not unhealthy.

For many people the danger of hope is felt most acutely at this time of year. It’s a problem for people who feel separate, injured and remote from the happiness that others and the season itself prescribes.

A recent study found that non-celebrants (e.g., Sikhs, Buddhists) felt some decrease in well-being in the presence of Christmas decorations. A follow-up study found that reduced feelings of inclusion explained the change in well-being. Dominant cultural symbols in a culturally diverse society, even those that carol good-will toward everyone, may unintentionally serve to alienate and depress.

And from the ‘No surprises here file’ come the findings from a paper in which children’s letters to Santa were analyzed. They report that the majority of letters pleaded wants and desires, with a minimum of needs and hopes and dreams conveyed. The researchers concluded that “this implies that for children Christmas seems to be a rather unspiritual festival concerning having things rather than dreams coming true”. The spirit of post-modern consumption conditions the cradle-to-grave splurging that advertizers are shooting for, embodied in the U.S. Black Friday – but more than the Friday seems to be so blackened.

People spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The problem is that there is a tomorrow, Virginia, and it brings bills of Christmas past. Is there freedom and choice here? To spend more than we have or more than we can afford creates a stress that we all know too well. Being realistic is always a gift to our health, and particularly so with our finances at this time of year. If your children’s wish lists are beyond what is appropriate financially or otherwise, an opportunity presents itself to talk with them about money and the greater meanings in life.

Jolly Old Saint Cynic-less may not see the sad truths and cultural dramas that play out at this time of year. But the seasonal spirit and the hope it promotes undoubtedly nudge a prevailing positive shift. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any recent research showing the healthfulness of Christmas but one. A large British study reported that people suffering family and partner relationship problems and social isolation commit deliberate self-harm less during the week of Christmas. But people who episodically used alcohol spiked a 250% increase in self-harm on New Year’s Day.

The heartfelt gift of the seasonal values of goodwill, love, compassion and generosity is the wisdom and light that can’t be bought. If only those values were avidly promoted year-round; a New Year’s resolution, anyone?