The Miraculous Bond Between Mother and Child
Research shows that bonding between a mother and her baby begins during pregnancy
A mother and her child – both during pregnancy and after birth – affect each other in ways that science is just beginning to discover.
That’s according to a three-part statement released by the American College of Pediatricians called “The Infant-Mother Connection and Implications for their Future Health.”
Here are some highlights from the latest research on the dramatic changes that begin to take place in both mother and baby starting at the moment of conception and continuing after birth, in addition to how their interactions can have lifetime benefits.
The “Mommy” Brain & Body
The “mommy” brain, as it’s often called, actually exists. Thanks to neuronal and hormonal changes during pregnancy and after delivery, the mother’s brain adapts “to enhance the ability of the mother to care for her infant,” according to the statement. Hormones and other chemicals cause the mother’s brain to be remodeled, with some regions increasing in size and others decreasing. Some of the areas affected control behaviors such as nesting and protecting the young. Many of the changes assist in the development of “maternal behavior,” described as characterized by “caring and loving actions typically associated with caring for and raising the young.”
Besides the obvious physical changes a woman undergoes during pregnancy, her unborn baby also alters her immune system and impacts her nutrition:
Pregnancy presents the mother’s body with unique challenges. Her body must be able to adequately nourish the new baby while assuring her own nutrition. In addition, the mother’s immune system, which would normally identify the unborn as ‘nonself’ due to the baby’s unique genetic code, must be down-regulated to allow the baby to develop without being rejected, while still maintaining a sufficient maternal defense against infection. Finally, the mother must adapt her motivational system to incorporate the care of a child who has numerous needs, yet is not able to demonstrate gratitude for the selfless acts of the mother.
Bonding between a mother and her baby begins during pregnancy. The two senses most involved in bonding and attachment are hearing and smelling. One study found that babies in utero recognize and become excited by the sound of their mother’s voices. Other studies have found that babies recognize the native language of their mothers in utero and demonstrate a preference for it over other languages. Other research found that a baby can actually remember words heard while in the womb.
Because unborn babies are, as the ACPeds paper puts it, “bathed in the amniotic fluid,” swallowing many ounces of it every day, they’re essentially being programmed “to prefer these same odors and tastes later on to enhance bonding with the mother.”
Newborns not only prefer the sound of their mother’s voice, they recognize it as early as two to four days after birth. For those mothers who sing and talk to their yet-to-be-born babies, studies have found that newborns recognize songs sung to them while in utero, and prefer hearing books that were read to them while still in the womb.
Of course, mothers (and fathers) continue to impact their children long after birth. New research demonstrates that “responsive parenting” is critical to the short and long-term health, development and well-being of babies and children.
Authoritative parenting has long been the parenting style considered most beneficial to children, as ACPeds board member and pediatrician Dr. Jane Anderson discussed in a previous post, “Are Modern Parents Afraid to be Authority Figures?” New research demonstrates that responsive parenting is a key component of authoritative parenting, and can help to alleviate stress experienced by children both in utero and after birth. Here’s how the ACPeds paper describes it: “[R]esponsiveness can be to various situations, such as signs of illness, a verbal or facial expression of need, or an exploratory initiative. Responsiveness is a component of a more comprehensive parenting style, authoritative parenting, wherein parents are aware of and responsive to their child’s emotional and physical needs, and yet willing to consistently apply firm loving correction when needed.”
The World Health Organization identifies three components to responsive parenting. First, the parent notices the child’s attempt to gain attention. Second, the parent correctly interprets those signals. And third, the parent responds quickly to meet the child’s needs.
According to the WHO, responsive parenting “benefits children’s language, cognitive and psychosocial development across the life span.” There is evidence that a mother who responds appropriately to her infant’s needs actually enhances his brain development. It’s believed that children’s temperaments and their ability to self-regulate may also be affected positively by responsive parenting. One study found a link between responsive parenting and children’s language development. Another found that maternal responsiveness “facilitated greater growth in target infants’ social, emotional, communication and cognitive competence.”
The mother-child bond would be inexplicably amazing were it not for knowing that it was our Creator who designed those intricately interconnected systems that lead to one thing: love.