The bond between parents and babies is one of the strongest forces in nature. Romances come and go, but once you’ve fallen for your baby, you’re hooked for life.
Jen Harrington of South Riding, Virginia, felt the rush the instant she looked at her new son. People had warned her that she was about to fall in love as never before, but she didn’t know what they meant until Joshua came along. “It was like I wasn’t even living before I looked at my baby,” she says.
The love you feel for your baby isn’t just cultural — it’s a basic part of your makeup. In recent years, scientists have started to explore this mysterious but crucial part of human nature. They’ve discovered that parents are hardwired to love their babies. Even if you’re a little nervous about parenthood, you’ll almost certainly rise to the occasion. After all, biology is on your side.
Love before first sight
Don’t be surprised to find yourself loving your baby before you even meet. While you’re daydreaming about her and picking out names, your body is already laying the foundation for a strong emotional bond. As your due date nears, your brain starts producing more and more oxytocin, a hormone that literally helps bring out the mother in you.
This single hormone is like a switch that turns on parental instincts. Animal studies show that a simple injection of oxytocin can turn a disinterested female into a supermom, even when the babies she’s caring for aren’t hers. On the other hand, a doting mother rat or sheep will quickly abandon her young if the supply of oxytocin is artificially depleted. Human love is more complicated than anything sheep or rats can ever conceive, but there’s no doubt that oxytocin can help stir your motherly feelings, too. It’s like love in your veins.
You and your baby: Addicted to love
When it’s finally time to have your baby, the stream of oxytocin in your brain and bloodstream suddenly becomes a torrent. Among its many other jobs, the hormone gets your milk flowing and starts labor contractions. (It works so well that doctors routinely give pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, through an IV to induce labor.) When you finally get to hold your baby, you’ll be practically swimming in the hormone. Oxytocin can break through your exhaustion and pain to give you a feeling of euphoria and intense love.
New fathers aren’t immune to the bewitching power of babies. Steve Bradley of Issaquah, Washington, says he didn’t give much thought to fatherhood even as his wife entered the last stages of pregnancy. “I was pretty much in denial until she [his daughter Olivia] started to crown,” he says. Bradley never expected to start crying, but the waterworks came as soon as he saw his daughter. “She came out face up, looking at me first,” he explains.
A small Canadian study found that men’s testosterone levels tend to plummet after they become dads for the first time. Even more intriguingly, 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 helps make the brain more sensitive to oxytocin, presumably helping fathers become more loving and attentive.
Oxytocin isn’t the only chemical of love. As you hold, rock, or nurse your baby, each of you gets a rush of dopamine, the main currency of pleasure in the brain. While you’re both enjoying the high, your baby’s feelings for you are taking root. Again, animal studies give us an important insight into human love. In 2004, Italian researchers reported that baby mice that couldn’t sense dopamine didn’t especially care whether or not their mom was around, the strongest evidence yet that dopamine plays a crucial role in mother/infant bonding.
Incidentally, dopamine is the same compound that “rewards” users of heroin or cocaine. In a sense, addicts who get hooked on drugs may be simply chasing the feeling that flows between a mother and her baby.
The natural flood of chemicals gives new parents a huge head start on a lifetime of attachment. Yet you don’t have to be a biological parent to fall in love with a child. According to Witt, adoptive parents enjoy hits of oxytocin and dopamine, too. They don’t get that rush of hormones that accompanies birth, but the moment when they first meet their new child is plenty powerful in its own right.
In some cases, missing out on the birth experience may actually make it easier to bond with a child. Pediatrician and childhood development expert Marshall Klaus estimates that about 30 percent of mothers don’t immediately fall in love with their babies, often because the newborn or the birth process wasn’t what they expected. Disappointment, stress, or exhaustion can be enough to drown out the powerful hormones of love, but only temporarily. The vast majority of parents grow attached to their babies within the first few months.
Carrie Hook, a Bozeman, Montana, child-abuse prevention counselor and mother of three, was fully prepared to fall in love with her first child immediately, but it didn’t work out that way. After a long and excruciating labor, 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 her baby for at least eight hours. When the baby was returned to her, 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. “I never thought I’d need impulse control to keep from throttling her.” 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: After about three months, Madison stopped screaming, Hook started to feel more confident, and the love fest began.
If you can’t hold your baby right away after birth, don’t despair. There isn’t a magical “window of opportunity” for bonding, Witt says. Even if your baby is born prematurely and has to spend a few days or weeks in an incubator, you’ll still have plenty of chances to fall in love. For one thing, the mere thought of him can be enough to get your hormones rushing. Still, you should push to get as much “mommy” time as possible as soon as possible, for your sake and your baby’s. Studies show that skin-to-skin contact with a mother, often called kangaroo care, is one of the best therapies for premature infants. Loving contact with mom can speed a baby’s growth, improve his sleep, and even shorten his hospital stay.
Love beyond birth
As you’re falling in love with your baby, in his own way he’ll be falling in love with you. In the first hour of wakefulness, your child will look you in the eye and memorize at least a blurry version of your face. (Studies show that infants can recognize their mothers by sight just a few hours after birth.) And by 7 or 8 months old, your baby will have developed strong emotional attachments to you and other people in his life, says Julia Braungart-Rieker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s important for infants to learn to trust their caregivers,” she says.
Your baby will care deeply about the people who hold him when he cries and feed him when he’s hungry. He’ll miss you when you leave the room, and he’ll be happy when you come back. It may not be “love” as adults define it, but it’s one of the strongest emotions he knows.
Even as your child grows up and becomes her own person, she can rarely ever break the bond she has with you, even if she tries. You have a connection that goes back to before she was born, a connection that’s propped up by emotions, memories, and, yes, hormones. When you hold your eight-year-old or watch her in a school play, you get a little rush of oxytocin, a literal reminder of your first hours together. It’s enough to make you fall in love all over again.
Interview with Jen Harrington
Interview with Steve Bradley
Interview with Carrie Hook
Interview with Dianne Witt
Interview with Julia Braungart-Rieker
Interview with Marshall Klaus
Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Kangaroo care. March 2010. http://www.brighamandwomens.org/newbornmedicine/patient/kangaroo.aspx
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