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The Science of Attachment Bonding

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When my first baby was born, he sailed straight into my arms and barely left them for the duration of our hospital stay. Like most moms, I knew about the importance of skin-to-skin contact; even my husband shed his own shirt to cuddle during the first days. In childbirth class, in parenting books, and even from my graduate school training, we’d heard so much about bonding in the first days of life that we made certain to create a special newborn bubble around us.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, part of my sense of urgency about my post-birth experience came from the work of two researchers, Marshall Klaus and John Kennell. In the early 1970s, they conducted a set of experiments to measure the power of keeping mom and baby close in the first days of life. A critical bonding period after birth had been found for species such as goats and ducks; Klaus and Kennell wanted to know whether the same was true for human babies. Mother-infant pairs were divided into groups, with some moms allowed extended contact with their naked, wriggling newborns after delivery and during the hospital stay. Others had more limited exposure — for example, moms were allowed to hold their babies swaddled in a blanket for 5 minutes after birth and then every four hours for short, scheduled feedings. They wondered if mothers and infants who had early contact would be more closely bonded later on, and if the babies would get a developmental boost from the proximity.

At first they published papers saying the answer was yes; when they followed up one month and even one year after birth, they wrote in 1974 that moms who’d had more contact with their babies in the hospital showed them greater physical affection — kissing and holding them face-to-face — than the ones who’d had less hospital time together. These moms were more soothing and less inclined to leave their children with a babysitter. The babies cried less and smiled more.

But here was the problem: Klaus and Kennell’s early attachment findings couldn’t be replicated. Their original studies had been done with very small samples, and even though some found associations, in the end they were loose at best. Whether there was extra contact or minimal contact between parents and babies in the first days of life — it all turned out to be a wash when it came to bonding. Animal research was interesting to contemplate, but it was clear that humans don’t bond the same way that goats and ducklings do.

Since the 1970s, our understanding of parent-infant attachment has expanded; it turns out to be a gradual and flexible process that unfolds over the first year of life and beyond. When babies or moms need medical interventions and have limited contact, attachment still forms. When babies are adopted into loving homes, the same is true. Warmth and touch are essential for newborns, which is why preterm infants who are massaged regularly gain weight and leave the hospital faster — but professional therapists (unrelated to baby) can produce these results. That bonding is a forgiving process makes good evolutionary sense: until modern times, so many mothers died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Babies are better served by forming a trusting relationship not necessarily with their biological parents, but with anyone who cares for them consistently over the long haul. In 1984, Klaus and Kennell re-evaluated their stance and wrote, “It seems unlikely that such a life-sustaining relationship would be dependent on a single process. There are many fail-safe routes to attachment.”

In other words, I didn’t need to be panicked about getting off on the right foot with my babies.

I’m worried I won’t feel instantly attached to my baby
Caitlin Boyle
The incredible mystery of mother-newborn attachments
Katie Allison Granju
The day I finally felt connected to my newborn
Lauren Hartmann

This isn’t to say that the first hours and days of life aren’t special, though. It’s clear that infants quite literally come out of the womb looking, listening, and feeling for their special someone. And study after study of newborn behavior has proven that when moms and babies are allowed unrestricted contact in the first hours and days after birth, breastfeeding is more likely to be successful.

Because of this, we’re actually lucky that the idea of a critical window for infant bonding was promoted, because it revolutionized the way hospitals deal with newborns. These days we take for granted that our babies will stay with us after they enter the world (barring medical necessity), but that wasn’t always the case.

Historically, parents and babies weren’t encouraged to spend time together after birth at all. Even though “rooming in” was introduced in 1943 (and then, mainly as a hospital space saver), it wasn’t a popular practice. Part of the reason for separating families back then was to control for infections (although it was realized later that mom’s room is safer, in part because nurseries are germy, but also because exposure to mom’s microorganisms and antibodies is protective), and hospital stays for kids in general tended toward isolation. My mother-in-law told me that when she gave birth in 1972, the hospital still didn’t allow babies to sleep in the room.

At the time, people already knew that closeness between mom and baby was important overall, but the idea of post-delivery bonding was new. When Klaus and Kennell’s ideas snowballed with other attachment research, it became clear that it was senseless to keep families apart. Four years later, when my mother-in-law gave birth again, a nurse brought her baby into her room and they slept the whole night together. That same year, I was born in New York Hospital. My mom showed me the pamphlet from her stay, which reads: “Rooming-in fosters the development of mother, father, and baby as a family unit while still in the hospital.”

The hospital where I gave birth to my daughter last year doesn’t have a nursery for healthy babies. On the tour, the nurse explained unequivocally, “If your baby is healthy, then your baby is with you.” At the time, I thought the purposeful absence of a nursery was kind of neat, but when I reflect on it now and take into account history, I realize its meaning and just how far hospitals have come.

For me, childbirth is a treasured, special experience that I’ll never forget. But I see that there’s still a remnant of the “sensitive period” theory that gives parents (including myself) anxiety about getting it just right. Attachment isn’t made up of any one particular practice around birth or otherwise — it’s made from thousands of small moments of contact and love over time. My husband got sick after my daughter was born and didn’t get the early time with her that he did with our son. He worried that he’d missed out on a bonding experience. Fast-forward a year to our perfect, beautiful baby lighting up at the sound of his voice and reaching for him when he walks through the door. Clearly their relationship didn’t form between cutting the umbilical cord and being wheeled out of the hospital. It grew slowly and steadily over time — just as nature intended.

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