The power of touch
The importance of mother/baby bonding was first recognized in the 1950s when psychoanalyst John Bowlby formulated the attachment theory, the idea that infants need to form a deep relationship with a primary caregiver in order for healthy social and emotional development to occur. While attachment theory has undergone some alterations since the '50s, it remains a stalwart in the study of human psychology.
Deepak Chopra, M.D., the endocrinologist-turned-mind/body medicine guru and co-author of Magical Beginnings, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, insists the process and effects of bonding go beyond the psychological. "There's no denying that the mother-baby connection is a biological one," he says. Furthermore, "it can have a profound effect on the physiology of the baby."
There's certainly evidence to support his claim. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that premature babies who were stroked gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those who were not. Skin-to-skin contact (called kangaroo care) has also been shown to have wide-ranging health benefits for preemies. Just last year, researchers in Japan found that infants who smelled their own mother's milk while undergoing a routine heel stick showed 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 newborns and ease pain. It should come as no surprise, then, that many babies ease well into breastfeeding once reunited with their moms. It's as if the scent of her body -- and perhaps her milk -- are the most familiar, comforting thing in the world.
The stress connection
We already know that pleasant physical contact releases the all-natural "drug" known as oxytocin, which eases pain and reduces stress. Theoretically, then, the more physical closeness you share with your baby, the calmer and less stressed she'll be. Alleviating stress is key to understanding how early bonding influences a child's health, says Dr. Chopra. If your skin has ever broken out or you've ever been sick to your stomach due to stress, you know what a physical toll it can take. So it's easy to imagine the magnified effects it can have on a tiny baby. In fact, stress can actually change how an infant's genes express themselves later in life. "Stress could switch 'on' the genes for certain disorders and switch 'off' genes that help us manage stress effectively," says Dr. Chopra.