Can't We All Just Bond?

Thursday, June 25, 2009 at Thursday, June 25, 2009
I have always been interested in how babies bond with their mothers. Multiple studies, including primates, have shown that early bonding occurs and is crucial for development. But just how important is this early interaction? How early is early? What are the benefits of early bonding?

Previous research has indicated some really cool immediate postnatal abilities. For example, immediately after birth, a baby has the ability to crawl up to Mommy’s breast and suckle! Which brings up an interesting side-note: why do some infants have a harder time learning how to breastfeed compared to others? But I digress. There are basically 2 camps in the research into early bonding. Camp 1 has shown research showing immediate benefits to the mother-infant contact. Babies that are intensively handled because of all of the neonatal tests, weighing, etc are negatively affected. Camp 2 did not find these negative effects, more specifically, did not show the beneficial effects of immediate mother-infant bonding. Research using multiple animal models has found deleterious effects if the separation from the mother is long-term. In newborn rats, long-term separation can result in an increased neuroendocrine response and basically make for a more stressed out adult rat. However, short-term experiences, via handling, actually shows an attenuated neuroendocrine response and a less stressed out adult rat. In primates, even a single long-term separation episode results social distortions in play and interactions.

I found an interesting article called “Neonatal Handling Affects Durably Bonding and Social Development” by Henry et al., 2009. The purpose of this study was to examine how intense handling and maternal separation 1 hour after birth affects the newborn. This study used horses. I know! Horses! But, as the article points out, horses and their babies (foals) are remarkably similar to humans. Horses have single births, show similar bonding after birth and have long suckling/lactating periods. The article also points out that foals exposed to human handling during the newborn period will go on to show a mistrust of humans. The basic design of the study was: Group 1: experimental foals who were separated from their mothers, handled for 1 hour immediately after birth; Group2: control foals were undisturbed after birth. Both groups were monitored from early development into adolescence in their natural environment. Here is what the study found: foals that had 1 hour of handling and were separated from their mothers immediately after birth had “insecure attachment to their mothers (strong dependency on their mothers, little exploration or play) and impaired traits of social competence (increased withdrawal and aggressiveness, impaired play) from an early age to young adulthood, while other behavioral features were not affected” (Henry et al. 2009). These results suggest that disruptions in the immediate interaction and bonding between a mother and her foal resulted in some pretty clear disturbances in the foals social functioning.

So I guess the obvious question is should we change the testing procedures for newborns? Is there more flexibility in human newborns to allow for some minimal separation?

Your thoughts or input?

Henry S, Richard-Yris M-A, Tordjman S, Hausberger M (2009) Neonatal Handling Affects Durably Bonding and Social Development. PLoS ONE 4(4): e5216.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005216


  1. Anonymous Says:

    So if you don't hang out with your baby you will end up with a thirty year old kid eating hot pockets and drinking Pepsi in your basement all day long!!!

  2. NeuronMommy Says:

    For all who couldn't guess..."anonymous" is my husband! lol

  3. Pamela Says:

    Very funny Colin...but on to the real question in the post.
    Initial bonding is just one of the many issues with our maternity care system. If the baby is breathing fine and showing no signs of distress/complications there is NO reason that the tests cannot be delayed until mom and baby have had a little cuddle and began breastfeeding. This might also bring a little insight into your question as to why some newborns take to BF pretty easily while others have problems...that instinct to find mom's nipple is partly driven by scent, when the baby is wisked away before the initial latch, handled and bathed, they have in fact washed away the baby's guiding scent (mom!). I enjoy your scientific perspective on these subjects!

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