Some time ago I read a book called, The Brain that Changes Itself. It introduced me to the idea that our brains are able to change and adapt. Much of that change occurs because of chemicals that act on the brain. Then, recently, I read an article that talked about the chemicals in the brain that make bonding with our baby, both possible and pleasurable. We turn from rather self-centered individuals into people who would sacrifice everything for a wrinkled, red, almost alien-looking bundle. So I’ve been doing more research. In this article, I want to share some of the major lessons I’ve learned.
The key to bonding with our baby is a mysterious process that causes us to enjoy one another. Moms and dads fall in love with their own baby and each baby falls in love with its own mom and dad. As long as we don’t interfere with the process, it will happen flawlessly and rather magically. An intricate dance begins even before birth, continues through the birth process, to feeding, cuddling, and playing with the baby. Touch and smell, sight and hearing all play a role, but the biggest role is played by some powerful chemicals rearranging our brains.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. It works hard in mom, dad, and baby. In mom, it causes her to become familiar with her infant’s unique odor and causes the ‘let down reflex’ that helps her begin to nurse. It works in her brain to promote her maternal behaviors. Oxytocin causes her to be more caring, eager to please others, more sensitive to other’s feelings, and to recognize non-verbal cues more readily. These characteristics make her a better mom to a baby who cannot communicate verbally. And it also has stress-reducing effects on her blood pressure and pulse.
In dad, oxytocin increases his interest in physical, rather than sexual, contact with the mother. This hormone makes dad become devoted to his family. He also gets the benefit of oxytocin surges in the mom. Just being with her when she has oxytocin surges causes her to prefer him over all other men.
In the baby, oxytocin helps the baby link the smell of his amniotic fluid to his mom’s breasts and milk. This creates a strong bond in the baby’s developing brain. Even bottle-fed babies prefer their own mom’s scent to formula in the first few weeks of life. It calms the baby. Oxytocin permanently reorganizes the baby’s brain to deal with stress and promotes characteristics of being securely attached socially. Oxytocin really is the chemical of connection.
So, you might ask, “What triggers this hormone?” Mom gets huge doses of oxytocin near the end of her pregnancy, during labor, when she attempts to breast feed her baby soon after delivery, and during breast feeding or cuddling her baby. Dad gets his surge of oxytocin during the last few weeks of pregnancy and when he has significant amounts of time touching, holding, and playing with his newborn. Baby gets huge doses of oxytocin when he/she smells mom, her breasts, her milk and with skin-to-skin contact. The whole family benefit from lots of opportunities to touch skin-to-skin, cuddle, play, caress, and look into each other’s eyes.
Oxytocin is only one of the hormones at work in this new family. Vasopressin is called the monogamy hormone. This is a male hormone that is at work in dad. When dad lives with baby and mom, vasopressin causes his brain to be reorganized toward paternal behaviors. It helps him recognize his own family and bond with his baby. It makes him want to be part of the family. He becomes more protective of them and more vigilant. Vasopressin also tempers his aggression, making him more reasonable and less extreme. Just having time touching, rocking, and cuddling baby gives him huge doses of this powerful hormone. Snoozing with his nearly naked baby on his bare chest will give them both a huge boost in bonding.
Prolactin has been called the parenting hormone. This one works on both mom’s and dad’s brains. For mom it helps her relax when she feeds her baby so she is will want to linger at feeding and be less likely to jump up and start working. In both mom and dad it decreases the sex drive. This helps them both to have more energy for their new parental attentions to baby. Just living with and feeding the baby will cause this hormone to be released and to do its work.
The Opioids are the last hormones I’m going to discuss here. These are the pleasure hormones. They decrease awareness of pain and increase feelings of elation. When these hormones are released during feeding and holding baby, they cause both baby and parents to enjoy the close contact of feeding and cuddling. The opioids reward baby with pleasant sensations when nursing, causing an increased desire for close social contact. The pleasure felt as a result of the opioids completes the work of the other brain chemicals in bonding the family together.
What this all means to us:
We are made in such a way that what normally happens around the birth of a baby causes mom, dad, and baby to be able to bond into a caring, nurturing family. As mom nears the end of pregnancy, most couples tend to keep in close contact, waiting for labor to begin. That nearness and contact begins the hormone surges. The desire of the parents to touch and hold their baby releases more hormones in all three of them. Ultimately having time and opportunity to feed, bathe, soothe, cuddle, look at, talk to, and play with baby will give all these powerful hormones the chance to rearrange their brains and bond them into a secure family.
Even babies and adoptive parents can have most of these hormonal changes, too. Lots of pleasurable touching, cuddling, and consoling will stimulate the release of these hormones in baby, adoptive mom and adoptive dad.
Some babies don’t have the opportunity to bond well with their parents. Maybe through ignorance, busyness, illness, or unwillingness, the parents don’t bond with their baby. Not every child who has been unable to bond well with his parents is doomed to life-long distress. Many children bond well with a substitute mother-figure. Maids, nannies, and extended-family members often bond quite well with babies. The baby gets the advantage of the brain hormones, as long as they bond with a caring mother-figure. The sad part is that the parents miss out on the best help they could have in fulfilling their parental roles. It is never too late to build a strong relationship with your child. If the window of opportunity for the release of these powerful hormones is missed, bonding will take lots of work and dedication.
Practically speaking, this means we need to take every advantage of feeding time to cuddle baby. Use maternity leave and confinement to enjoy your baby. Both mom and dad should be as involved as possible in the day-to-day care of baby. Linger at bath time and enjoy touching your baby all over. Enjoy play time, look in each other’s eyes, and speak ‘parentese.’
We are intricately made and finely tuned to become a family. Doing what comes naturally has proven to be exactly what is necessary to cause this process of bonding to intertwine our lives together. So be there for your baby, and be there for each other. The rewards will last the rest of your life.