The Science Behind Baby Bonding

by Patty Onderko

The Science Behind Baby Bonding

How the chemical connection a mom has with her baby within the first hour of birth sets the tone for their relationship and helps determine the future emotional and physical health of the child

Immediately after my twin boys were born via C-section almost three years ago, a nurse placed each baby on my chest for a brief photo-op. It was disorienting seeing those two tiny, fleshy lumps amidst all the steel tools and beeping monitors, but both babies were healthy, as was I, and my partner and I were joyful.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered: After I held the boys that first time, where did they go? I know I remained in the operating room for at least half an hour, maybe more. Then I passed in and out of an exhausted delirium before waking up in a recovery room where I was reunited with my newborns. Where they went and what they did for that hour in between has always been a mystery to me.

This short absence never really bothered me until recently, when I learned about what’s called the “golden” post-birth hour when both mother and child are best primed to form an intense chemical connection with each other. During childbirth, a woman’s body releases oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to contract and expel the baby (its synthetic form, Pitocin, is sometimes administered to women to speed up deliveries). Oxytocin is also a feel-good hormone heavily involved with bonding; it’s released during orgasm and when breastfeeding. After the child is delivered, the mom is under the influence of this pain-relieving, bliss-inducing “drug,” as is the baby, creating a love-at-first-sight moment. Furthermore, the scents released by both baby and mother during birth have powerful pheromones that attract the two to each other, as well as allow the baby to “sniff out” her mother’s nipple and instinctively begin to nurse.

Experts say the bond that develops between the two during this time not only sets the tone for their whole relationship, it also helps to determine the future emotional and physical health of the child for decades to come. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages moms to maximize the skin-to-skin contact as much as possible within the first few minutes of a baby’s life.

Uh-oh, does that mean my kids and I were robbed? Maybe. Does it mean we’re doomed? Thankfully, no. Pediatrician and Babytalk contributing editor William Sears, M.D., father of the attachment parenting movement and the author of 40-plus parenting books, says, “bonding is not an instant glue.” It’s not a zero-sum game, either. “Just because you didn’t hold your babies for the hour after they were born doesn’t mean it’s all over,” he says. “It’s never too late to start bonding. I’ve seen parents who adopt 1-year-olds, and even though it may take longer for their bond to solidify, it does happen. You can always catch up.” What’s important is what you do with the time you have once you are together, whether that’s immediately after birth or not.

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.

Turning genes on and off certainly sounds like snake-oil-salesman-speak, but it’s actually an emerging science called epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how one’s environment — what you eat, where you live and, yes, the strength of your bond with your parents or caregivers — can physically alter certain genes, for better or for worse. A study last year of 15,000 adults who experienced childhood trauma, such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, found that such traumatic stress imparted to them a 70 to 100 percent increased risk of hospitalization for certain autoimmune disorders, including Graves’ disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Chances are you’re already worrying about your baby aplenty (Is he eating enough? Is he getting enough sleep?), but don’t add to the list fretting over the number of minutes you’re holding your newborn. It’s not as if the half-hour your baby spent in a bouncy seat while you — God forbid — took a shower is going to make her sickly. The studies cited deal mostly with extremes, often involving subjects who received zero TLC. That, of course, is not likely to happen in your house.

It’s the quality of the care, not the quantity, that matters, says Dr. Chopra. So don’t feel like you need to be glued to your rocker, holding your tot close day and night. In fact, ignoring your own needs in favor of your baby’s won’t do either of you any good. “A mom needs time to herself to recharge,” he says. “Otherwise, she won’t be able to give her baby the quality of attention he needs.” Solicit support from your partner, family and friends so that you can enjoy the closeness with your baby rather than come to resent it.

If you have yet to give birth, do your best to take advantage of those first moments (aka “the golden hour”). According to the AAP, you should feel comfortable enough to ask the nurse to delay routine newborn administrations such as the vitamin K shot and eye ointment so you can hold your baby and allow her to move toward your breast for her first feeding. Avoid covering yourself up, so that your newborn can lick or suck your nipple (if you plan to breastfeed) and you can both enjoy the skin-to-skin contact during those first few minutes.

If I had known about the golden hour before my C-section, I might have asked the doctors to let me hold my babies longer. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. I was so exhausted, overwhelmed and relieved that drifting off for a minute sounded pretty good at the time. Plus, my boys are (natch) the healthiest, handsomest, smartest guys around, and I’m pretty sure they love me. My conscience is clean. After all, the news about bonding should be empowering, not overwhelming, says Dr. Chopra. Simply gazing into your new baby’s eyes or curling and uncurling the fingers on her tight little fists is far from time wasted. In fact, it’s an opportunity to start your baby on a healthy track that will, hopefully, guide her through the rest of her life.