Love between you and your child
During her pregnancy, people warned Jen Harrington that she was about to fall in love like never before. But she didn’t understand what they meant until her son, Joshua, was born. The feeling of adoration hit as soon as she saw him.
“It was like I wasn’t even living before I looked at my baby,” Harrington says.
The bond between parent and child is one of the strongest connections in nature. Romances come and go, but once you’ve bonded with your baby you’re probably hooked for life, and not because you enjoy the prospect of changing thousands of diapers.
The love you feel for your child isn’t just intellectual or cultural — it’s a basic part of your makeup. Whether you’re a mom or a dad, an adoptive parent or a stepparent, you’re primed to form strong bonds with your child, and your child is equally ready to connect with you.
Over the years, scientists and child development experts have uncovered fascinating details about the connection between parents and children. Their findings help explain why babies are so addictive and why we deeply love our kids when they get older, too — tantrums, arguments, and all. Your bond with your child will change over the years, but its importance never fades.
Pregnancy: Love before first sight
Don’t be surprised to find yourself loving your baby before you even meet. Soon-to-be parents are often hit by a potent mix of emotions and anticipation — and these feelings help set the stage for your relationship with your child.
If you’re a pregnant mom, powerful mommy hormones also lay the groundwork for your connection with your baby. These kick in during pregnancy, growing stronger as the weeks go by.
As your due date nears, your brain starts producing more and more oxytocin, a hormone that literally helps bring out the mother in you. Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin is responsible for maternal behavior like nuzzling and grooming in animals from rats to monkeys. For pregnant moms, its main job is to ease feelings of stress while fueling anticipation for the new arrival.
Oxytocin has attracted serious scientific interest in recent years. Animal studies suggest that it plays a huge role in all sorts of social behaviors, from raising babies to forming long-term relationships. Animals that don’t produce oxytocin ignore their offspring and find different mates every season. Species that do make the hormone tend to be doting parents that form lasting bonds with their mates. So when your body starts pumping out oxytocin during pregnancy, it’s as if love is coursing through your veins.
Your baby is also developing a bond with you, even in the womb. Studies show that his heart will beat a little faster at the sound of your voice. It’s something that will excite and comfort your child now and for years to come.
If you’re a dad, the second parent in a same-sex couple, or an adoptive parent expecting a new baby, you won’t experience the same hormonal boost and physical closeness with your developing child that pregnant moms do. But don’t worry, your bond with your child won’t suffer.
Babies and older children have the capacity to form tight bonds with any caregiver who responds to their physical and emotional needs. Attachment theory — the guiding psychological principle of human relationships — says that people of all ages become deeply connected with others who provide a sense of security and support.
People never outgrow their ability and desire to form these connections, so it’s never too late to bond with a child, says Carol Wilson, a psychologist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Any caregiver can become an attachment figure,” she explains.
You and your baby: Addicted to love
As labor progresses, the stream of oxytocin in a mom-to-be’s brain and bloodstream becomes a torrent. Among its many other jobs, the hormone causes contractions and gets breast milk flowing. (It works so well that doctors routinely pump pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, through an IV to induce labor.)
As a brand-new mom, you’ll be practically swimming in oxytocin when you finally get to hold your baby. The hormone can break through the exhaustion and pain of labor to give you a feeling of euphoria and intense love. According to pediatrician and child development expert Marshall Klaus, the potency of oxytocin helps explain why babies are almost never abandoned in hospitals that allow mothers to hold and nurse them in the first hour after birth.
New fathers aren’t immune to the bewitching nature of babies — or the effects of oxytocin — either. Like mothers, dads get a rush of the love hormone when they see their baby for the first time. That may help explain the unexpected emotions that sometimes overwhelm dads in the delivery room.
Steve Bradley says he never gave much thought to fatherhood, even as his wife entered the last stages of pregnancy. He certainly didn’t expect to cry when his daughter was born, but the waterworks started as soon as he saw Olivia. “I was pretty much in denial until she started to crown,” he says. “She came out face up, looking at me first.”
New dads experience other dramatic biological changes, too. A Canadian study in 2001 found that men’s testosterone levels tend to plummet (for a couple of months anyway) after they become dads for the first time. Even more intriguing, some men start to produce extra estrogen, perhaps the clearest sign of the transformative power of fatherhood. According to Diane Witt, a neuroscientist with the National Science Foundation, estrogen makes the brain more sensitive to oxytocin, presumably helping fathers become more loving and attentive.
Oxytocin isn’t the only love chemical. Dopamine, the main currency of pleasure in the brain, plays an important role in early bonding, too — for you and for your baby. As you hold, rock, or nurse your child, you both get a rush of this “reward” chemical.
While you’re savoring the high, dopamine is helping your baby attach emotionally to you. In 2004, Italian researchers put this together by observing baby mice: Those that couldn’t sense dopamine didn’t especially care whether or not their mom was around. It’s the strongest evidence yet that dopamine plays a crucial role in mother and infant bonding.
Adoptive parents also enjoy hits of the feel-good chemicals oxytocin and dopamine when they’re around their children, according to Witt. And their offspring, like all children with healthy attachments to their caregivers, get regular rushes of dopamine from spending time with their parents.
Incidentally, dopamine is what gives drug users a feeling of well-being when they’re high on heroin or cocaine. In a very real sense, addicts who get hooked on drugs are simply chasing the feeling that ideally flows between parent and child. Parental love just happens to be infinitely healthier.
What if we don’t bond immediately?
About 30 percent of mothers don’t fall in love with their babies right away, often because their child or the birth process isn’t what they expected. Disappointment, stress, or exhaustion can be enough to drown out the strong hormones of love, but only temporarily. The vast majority of parents grow attached to their babies in the first few months.
Carrie Hook, a child-abuse prevention counselor and mother of three, didn’t get the chance to bond with her first child right after birth. After Hook’s long and excruciating labor, baby Madison was born with a small amount of meconium in her lungs, and the nurses in the hospital immediately whisked her away.
Hook couldn’t nurse or even hold Madison for at least eight hours. Even then, she had trouble connecting with the screaming bundle in her arms. “I just figured that your baby is born and you fall in love,” she says. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to be a mother.
Hook often tells her story to mothers who are worried about connecting with their babies. The story ends on a happy note: Eventually Madison stopped screaming, Hook started to feel more confident, and the lovefest began.
If you can’t hold your baby right away after birth, don’t despair. There isn’t a magic “window of opportunity” for bonding, says Witt, the National Science Foundation neuroscientist. Adoptive parents, parents of preemies, moms who have birth complications, and others who aren’t always able to spend extended time with their babies right away still have plenty of time to fall in love.
However, if your baby is born prematurely and has to spend a few days or weeks in an incubator, push to spend as much time with her as possible, as soon as you can, for your sake and your baby’s. Recent studies show that skin-to-skin contact with a parent, often called kangaroo care, is one of the best therapies for preemies.
A father’s touch can be just as calming as a mother’s. A study of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units found that attention from Dad can have profound, long-lasting benefits. The babies who received regular visits from their dad gained more weight in the hospital. They also showed better emotional development 18 months later, probably because they continued to get lots of parental attention after they came home.
Likewise, if you have a cesarean section and can’t hold your baby right away, have your partner step in. A 2007 study of babies delivered by c-section found that skin-to-skin time with Dad cut down on crying and encouraged babies to start their first nap in the outside world.
Love develops over time — for you and for your baby. If you’re together during your child’s first hour of wakefulness, she may look you in the eye and memorize your face, or at least a blurry version of your face. Later, her early smiles can help the two of you connect. A study published in Pediatrics in 2008 found that when moms looked at pictures of their own smiling baby, their brain lit up in areas associated with the pleasure-connected chemical dopamine.
But it won’t be until 7 or 8 months old that your baby will develop strong emotional attachments to you and other important people in her life, says Julia Braungart-Rieker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame.
Your baby will care deeply about the people who hold her when she cries and feed her when she’s hungry. She’ll miss you when you leave the room, and she’ll be happy when you come back. It’s not exactly “love” as adults define it, but it’s one of the strongest emotions she knows.
Note: It’s impossible to “spoil” a baby with love, attention, and affection, says Emma Adam, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University. When you comfort your child, you’re building a foundation of trust and affection that will last a lifetime.
Toddlers: Are tantrums a sign of affection?
The bond between you and your child grows stronger in the toddler years, even if he spends much of the time stomping and screaming. In fact, those fits are a testament to your closeness.
Tantrums from toddlers are a bit like lover’s quarrels, according to Adam. “They’re only capable of that meltdown because they love you so much,” she says. In other words, your child couldn’t be so disappointed or angry unless he trusted you deeply in the first place.
Even when you’re incredibly frustrated with your toddler, don’t worry that you’ll stop loving him. Again, you have biology on your side. British researchers recently scanned the brains of 20 mothers who were looking at pictures of their own young children. The part of the brain that controls pleasure — the same part involved in romantic love — lit up like a slot machine hitting the jackpot. The part that judges and criticizes, however, practically shut down.
Mom Jen Harrington certainly has trouble seeing any shortcomings in her son, even now that he’s a big 5-year-old. He was one of those angelic, no-hassle kids that other parents envy. (“When he was a baby, we would sometimes joke that we should poke him just to see if he could cry,” she says.) But she and her husband are equally crazy about their daughter, Abigail, a crier and screamer who’s as strong-willed as her brother is mellow.
“Before she was born, I was worried that I couldn’t love another child as much as I love Josh,” Harrington says. “But I do.”
Your toddler has a rich range of emotions. (If you spend 15 minutes with him in a grocery store, there’s a good chance you’ll see every one of them.) But he still doesn’t understand the concept of “love” as you know it. Toddlers often throw the word around loosely: They may say they love you, but they’ll also say they love their books or their toys or their third-favorite cereal. (Remember, these are the same people who like to call all four-legged animals “doggies.”)
Even so, you don’t have to worry about your place in your toddler’s universe. He’s keenly aware that you’re important, and when he gets hurt or wants to cuddle, he doesn’t run to his toys or the cereal cupboard. “Children want help from the people they trust the most,” says Braungart-Rieker, the University of Notre Dame psychologist.
Preschoolers and big kids: A more refined love
As your child gets older, she’ll start keeping more of her emotions hidden, partly because of peer pressure and partly because the toddler method of expressing every passing feeling can be exhausting.
Still, some older children are extremely generous with their affection. Harrington’s son Josh acts as if his mom and dad need constant reassuring. “When I drop him off at school, I can’t leave without him saying ‘I love you,'” Harrington says.
Even if your child doesn’t hug you at every opportunity, the signs of love will still be there. Some kids are very confiding and will tell you everything, while others are by nature more likely to keep things inside. But as long as you’re there when your child needs you and are ready to listen, love will still flow in two directions.
The needy, clingy love of early childhood is starting to become more rich and complicated. Your child now feels empathy for you and others, and she’ll start to love you as a person, not just a caregiver.
As a preschooler, she may enjoy spending one night at Grandma’s house, but it won’t be long before she’s begging to come home. At the same time, she’s starting to push for more independence, which means she needs your love and support now more than ever.
“It seems contradictory, but the more security you give your child, the more independent she can become,” says Adam, the Northwestern University psychologist.
Even as your child strives to become her own person, she can’t break the bond she has with you. You have a connection that goes back to before she was born, one that’s propped up by affection, memories, and, yes, hormones.
When a mom holds her 8-year-old or watches her in a school play, she gets a little hit of oxytocin, a literal reminder of the first hours with her baby. And when other parents or trusted caregivers kiss an “owie” or help out with homework, they’re cementing an attachment that will last for years. It’s enough to make you fall in love all over again.
Written by Chris Woolston for Baby Center