“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”
The Senses and the Bond Between Mother and Child
In the animal world, the first bond between mother and child is that of scent. The mother’s secretion of estrogen and that of the child “match” perfectly. In nature, it is one of the ways that an animal is able to recognize its mother. In cases in which an animal has died while giving birth, farmers will often rub the baby animal with the placenta of another mother, which results in that mother accepting it as her own. However, the time in which this is possible is just two hours.
To test whether the same was true of humans, Lee Salk, a child psychologist, separated 115 mothers from their newborn babies for twenty-four hours after birth. 80 percent of the mothers who had contact with their babies within the first twenty-four hours of life held their babies on their left sides, close to the heart. Mothers that had been separated from their babies showed no preferred side for holding their babies.
After performing other tests which separated mothers and infants for longer periods of time, but not within the first twenty-four hours, he concluded that like other mammals, the strongest bond between mother and child may be formed within the first twenty-four hours. In another study, babies who were exposed to their mother’s regular heartbeat weighed more and cried less. If the heartbeat is irregular due to stress, babies respond accordingly by becoming restless.
In a study conducted in Sweden, forty mothers had skin-to-skin contact with their newborn infants during the first thirty minutes of life. The relationships between these infants and their mothers was observed three months later and compared to those of mothers and infants that had not experienced skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth. The bond between mother and child seemed to be stronger in the first group, expressed by their facing one another for longer periods of time and fewer complaints by mothers regarding feeding times that interfered with sleep. These babies also cried less and smiled more.
The strong yet fragile bond between mother and child begins with the secretion of hormones during delivery, making the first hour after birth extremely important to the bonding process. The mother’s secretion of estrogen and that of the child “match” perfectly. Just as our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are affected by hormonal changes, the reverse is also true.
Socialization and the Bond Between Mother and Child
The production of hormones can also be triggered by our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Whether our thoughts are pleasant or disturbing has an effect on what type of hormone, and how much of it, is produced by the body. Separating our thoughts from the chemical reactions they cause within our bodies would be as impossible as separating a mother bear from her cub.
In some species of apes, the mother does not allow any other animal to care for her offspring. However, in other species, such as the Bonnet macaque, care of the young is shared by a number of community members, both related and non-related to the mother. The capacity for accepting help from others in caring for our young is one of the things that separates humans from our evolutionary cousins, the primates.
What a mother thinks about the meaning of having a child has the power to determine how she will behave towards the child. Unlike precocial animals that mature quickly and can follow their mothers within hours after birth, humans are altricial, and raising a child to maturity can take twenty years. That’s why her thoughts about having children are so important.
The results of studies can support many different hypotheses about the bond between mother and child. Perhaps the fact that our thoughts can affect our chemistry and our behavior, and socialization can affect our thoughts is one of the reasons it is so difficult for mothers to trust their own instincts. Many continue to rely on social customs that have not always proven to be in the best interests of supporting the natural bond between mother and child.
In the final analysis, most mothers are as dependent upon society for survival as their children are dependent upon them. However, between six and ten months, human infants begin to show signs of attachment to siblings and other important people in their lives. This all means that mothers have many years, as well as help from others, to continue to develop and strengthen the bond with their babies.
Our body chemistry and our thought processes are always in the midst of a dance so complex that it is often difficult to tell which partner is leading. The bond between mother and child is one of the most beautiful results of this dance of life.