Pearls of Wisdom: Emotional Bonding- Part 1: Birth to 12 Months

We hear the term “bonding” so often in modern culture that it’s easy to minimize its importance and impact. But the bond between parents and children is so critical that immediately after delivering a baby, barring complications, a mother will be given some time to spend holding, stroking and looking at her baby. During this sensitive period when the newborn is very alert and responsive, the very first exchanges of touch, eye contact and sounds between a mother will occur; these first interactions are all part of the bonding process.

Many of the basic core emotions you feel for your child will begin during the period right after birth. Watching your baby look back at you, mirroring your facial expressions and following your movements, you will feel a wonderful surge of awe, protectiveness, and limitless love. This initiates what is called the attachment process. Moms who are sedated or who have babies requiring immediate medical attention may not be able to spend this time but should not worry. This will have no long-term repercussions on their relationship since bonding has no time limit. Once your baby is stable and you have recovered from the stress of labor, you will have this opportunity and achieve the same heightened connection.

shutterstock_78150679Parents have an active role in the infant’s state regulation, by alternately offering stimulation or soothing to lengthen the social interaction. Likewise, the parents are regulated by the baby’s signals, responding, for instance with a bottle or breast to answer cries of hunger. These interactions comprise a system directed toward developing the infant’s normal physiologic homeostasis and physical growth. This also forms the foundation for the budding relationship between parent and child. Your baby learns that you as the primary caregiver can alleviate her stress or tension by feeding and shows this preference by calming down quicker for the mom or dad than for a stranger. In turn, this gives Mom a sense of validation and strong connection with her infant. Breastfeeding is a wonderful means by which mothers feel fulfillment and joy from the physical and emotional connection they experience while nursing. These warm feelings are augmented by the release of the hormone prolactin, producing relaxation and the hormone oxytocin, which promotes the sense of love and attachment between mother and infant.

Babies learn basic trust when they realize that their urgent needs are met. The presence of an adult who provides consistency creates the scenario for a secure attachment. Studies show that infants who are consistently picked up and held in response to distress cry less at 1 year and show less aggressive behavior at 2 years.

shutterstock_130586048By the age of 2 months, infants have their first voluntary social smiles and their amount of eye contact increases, marking a change in the parent-child bonding and also giving the parents a sense of being loved back. The baby interacts with increasing sophistication and range, expressing varied emotions of joy, anger, fear, interest and surprise by different facial expressions. When interacting with a trusted adult, the infant and the caregiver have matching expressions about 30% of the time; the eye-widening, laughing and lip-puckering rises and falls together. If the parent turns away, the baby leans forward and reaches out to get the adult involved again. Infants of depressed parents have a different pattern and spend noticeably less time in coordinated movement with their parents, and make less effort to re-engage. They show sadness, apathy and a loss of energy when the parents are not available. This face- to- face behavior demonstrates a baby’s ability to share emotion and expectation from the relationships, which is the initial step in communication.

Babies 6-12 months old show advances in cognitive understanding and communication ability, with new tensions around themes of attachment and separation. Babies look back and forth between a stranger and a parent, as if to contrast a familiar versus an unfamiliar, and may cling or cry. At the same time, there is an emergence of asserting independence; hence, they attempt self-feeding and refuse to take the spoon from the caregiver. This is when temper tantrums arise as the desire for autonomy comes into conflict with parental control.

The unique emotional relationship that forms between you and your baby is key to him feeling safe, and also influences your child’s social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. A secure bond ensures that your baby will have a firm foundation for life, which includes a healthy sense of self-awareness, eagerness to explore and learn, and trust and respect for others. When babies develop a secure attachment bond, they are better able to enjoy interacting with others, develop confidence, handle disappointment, loss or stress, form mature intimate relationships and maintain emotional balance.

How do you bond with your children? Share your stories in the comments or on our Facebook page!

All information contained in this blog and on our web site(s) should be independently verified by you by a medical professional of your own choosing and you should always conduct your own research and due diligence before making any decision related to the subject matter of this blog or our web site. 


Dr. Pearl


Dr. Pearl Cenon

A pediatrician in private practice in New Jersey for over 15 years, Dr. Cenon (we like to call her Dr. Pearl) also has two children of her own. Dr. Pearl’s husband, Kevin McDonough is also a pediatrician and they work together. She writes basic posts about topics that interest many parents, from skin care and nutrition to seasonal issues, such as allergies and colds. Her kind, approachable tone in each blog post will have you looking forward to the next one.