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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
On Serendip

Human Mother-Infant Bonds

Rhianon Price

It is probably common knowledge to many people that mother-infant bonding occurs in nonhuman animals. Ducklings and many other types of birds imprint on the first moving thing they see, which is usually their mother, following her or it wherever it may go (1); baby monkeys express much anxiety and display social inadequacies when separated from their mothers (2). In most nonhuman species, it is critical for this bonding to occur if the baby is to survive; the mother is the baby's caretaker and protects it from dangers in the surrounding environment, so both the infant's desire to maintain physical proximity to her and the mother's desire to have her baby with her act in the infant's overall best interest. It is perhaps not a surprising concept to mention, then, that human animals, too, develop mother-infant bonds.

Peripartum is the most important time for the human mother-infant bond to develop. During the time immediately post-delivery, when in a natural childbirth setting the mother is holding her baby for the first time without it having been taken away from her, endorphins, oxytocin and endogenous opiates are released in the mother's brain. This produces an intense pleasure or gratification, which is then associated with the nurturing process, helping mothers want to be with their infants (bond with them) (3); this is ultimately beneficial for the newborn, which requires its mother's protection and care in order to survive. Furthermore, mothers who have been separated from their infants immediately postpartum often express feelings of lack of affection for, alienation from, and disinterest in the baby, as well as the accompanying infamous postpartum depression. In fact, some studies suggest that lack of uninterrupted postpartum mother-infant bonding can be linked to incidences of maternal child abuse (5).

Physical proximity of infant to mother immediately postpartum is also very important for not only bonding to occur, but also for the development of the infant's senses. The infant's senses are stimulated by the sounds, scents, and feel of the mother's body. Physical contact not only allows the baby to eventually identify the caress of its mother (and its father, too, eventually), it also stimulates the baby's nervous system (7). Encouraged by the ability to physically touch its mother's skin, the infant soon begins to nurse (5). Babies learn their mother's scent by during nursing; at first, the infant is attracted to the breast because the breast produces a scent very similar to the infant's own, so it is familiar, but then during active nursing, the infant learns the scent that is specifically its mother's (6). Also during nursing, the mother and baby often gaze into each other's eyes, stimulating the infant's developing sense of sight and familiarizing the baby with the mother's facial features and human expressions (key for later development in the ability to mimic these expressions [7]), and the mother will talk softly to her new baby, identifying the mother auditorially to the infant and stimulating its developing sense of hearing, as well (5). Mothers learn their baby's scent and sounds during this interval, too (4).

Bonding does not always occur peripartum. In many hospitals, it is still routine practice for the baby to be taken away for testing and cleaning immediately after delivery, or perhaps the baby actually does have an emergency medical condition and requires time in the Intensive Care Unit (7). It is not impossible for mother-infant bonds to develop after this key interval. However, bonding is most easily established during this time, and many mothers describe bonding as far more difficult to achieve after initial senses of disconnectedness from, disinterest in, and alienation from the baby have occurred. It can take weeks in these cases for attunement and bonding to occur (5).

Many studies still dispute the importance and relevance of peri- and postpartum mother-infant bonding. Despite evidence that infants not allowed peripartum bonding time with their mothers smile less frequently, respond more slowly and with less seeming-comprehension to sensory data, are more prone to developing colic, and cry more frequently, research scientists, very often male, discount this critical bonding window as far less important than weighing, measuring, and administering tests to the baby (8). Infants develop attachments to inanimate objects (security blanket, anyone?) and this goes unremarked upon what would that infant have been clinging to one or two hundred years ago? Its mother?

It seems very clear that, like so many animals in the world, human infants and mothers are wired for bonding to occur; yet medical technology and scientific studies seem more geared to disprove than to see any validity in the assertion of this. Chemicals released in our brains promoting joy and contentment, sensory and neurological responses to identifying aspects of mother and baby, and the sad imprinting of babies to teddy bears and security blankets all support the fact that human mothers and babies are both designed to and need the opportunity to bond peri- and postpartum; why does our society choose to ignore this fact?


(1)Wild Ducks of North America, from The Humane Society of the United States..

(2)Forcibly Breaking the Maternal Bond, from the Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly.

(3)Lecture 8 Notes, from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

(4)Professor finds that nonhuman primates have evolutionary reason to bond with their offspring, from The University of Chicago Chronicle.

(5)Bonding Period, from Birth Messages.

(6)Unique Salience of Maternal Breast Odors for Newborn Infants, from Science Direct.

(7)Bonding With Your Baby, from Kids Health.

(8)Breaking the Bond, from

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