The First Love
The attachment between you and your parents as a child is arguably the most significant relationship in your life. It is this bond that constitutes your first experience of human relationships, shaping the very architecture of your brain and influencing every relationship you have from here on in. And as relationships are now acknowledged to be the most influential factor in your longevity, health and wellbeing, this very first ‘love’ has a vital role to play whatever age you are.
When Bowlby first defined the concept of attachment in the 1950s he saw it very much as a state which existed exclusively between mother and child, the mother being the sole source of the food, water, care and nurture which are critical to the survival of the largely helpless human baby. However, in recent years as our knowledge of the science and behaviour of fatherhood has grown it is now very clear that both parents experience this profound and intense bond with their child. But the nature of these attachments are crucially different.
Shaping Baby’s Brain
Human infants, like all altricial species (those born helpless and unable to care for themselves), will form an attachment to their carer regardless of the quality of that attachment, so critical is it to their survival. In humans the development of this bond – generally in the first 2 years of life – coincides with a period of rapid brain growth which means that the care environment has a fundamental influence on the development of the child’s brain, in particular their emotion and emotion regulation. As a consequence the carer plays a critical role in regulating the development of the baby’s brain and the underlying physiology during this time.
The Power of Synchrony
Where the quality of care provided is high then the bond that is built is deemed to be secure. High quality care, or sensitive parenting, is characterised by high levels of nurture, a real awareness of the baby’s emotional and practical needs and the all-important synchrony in behaviour and emotion which seems to act to reinforce any bond. Close attachments are underpinned by a phenomenon known as biobehavioural synchrony where those involved unconsciously synchronise their behaviour, their physiology (eg. heart rate and blood pressure) and their brain neurobiology and activity. It is a phenomenon that has been seen in babies, mums and dads who are securely attached. As yet nobody, including its discoverer Israeli neuroscientist Ruth Feldman, knows quite how it is triggered nor why but we do know that it is fundamental to our closest relationships and as a consequence a child’s ultimate baseline level of circulating oxytocin is predicted by that of their parents.
The Chemistry of Love
As a result of this sensitive parenting, high degrees of connectivity are seen within the emotional areas of the baby’s brain and between the amygdala – the site of fear, emotion regulation and risk detection – and the pre-frontal cortex which is the site of our social cognition. Indeed, Dutch scientist Rhianne Kok and her team found that there is a direct relationship between the sensitivity of the parenting and the actual total brain volume in the child – sensitive care leads to visible and significant increases in grey and white matter and greater connectivity within the child’s brain. In addition, both carer and baby will experience the most wonderful flood of reward and bonding hormones whenever they interact. These hormones – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and beta endorphin – are released in the brains of both and reward and motivate them for taking part in this survival critical behaviour. As a consequence of this optimal care environment, the baby is primed to be able to develop positive and healthy relationships throughout their life – they have the necessary neural and biological toolbox.
The Difference between Mum and Dad
But the actual behaviours which underpin this crucial bond, and the circumstances in which the bonding neurochemicals are released, differ depending on whether the carer occupies the fathering or mothering role. We can characterise the bond between a mum and her baby as being one of exclusivity. It is very inward looking, exclusively between mother and child and based overwhelmingly on nurture. Indeed, when we view a mom’s brain on the scanner screen we see peaks in activity in the ancient core of the brain, their limbic area, where affection, nurture and risk detection sit, and her peaks in oxytocin and dopamine are generated by this intimate caring behaviour.
In contrast, when we place dad in the scanner we see something very different. While the core of the brain does show activity – we all know dads can nurture – the peaks in activity are in the neocortex where our higher cognitive functions sit. This reflects the difference in dad’s attachment style because while it is based on nurture it is also based on challenge – the drive to push the child’s developmental boundaries, to help them to confront risk and challenge and to build the mental and physical resilience to deal with these two inevitable aspects of life.
Dad for Play, Mum for Hugs
These two attachments have evolved to be different to ensure that the child, particularly during the critical first two years of life when the brain is rapidly developing, experiences a fully rounded developmental environment. And while we know very little about what happens in a child’s brain when they are attaching to their carer, ethical issues makes this area of study difficult to pursue, we do know that they have evolved to experience peaks in neurobiological reward when interacting with their preferred play or affection partner. So dad and baby receive peaks in neurobiological reward from playing together while mum and baby get their hit from nurturing. Hence kids have a tendency to seek dad out to play and run to mum for that reassuring hug.
Attachment is Life Changing
So when a parent asks me what the best thing they can do with their new baby is I tell them to spend time with their baby, interacting one to one. Avoid the distractions of the modern world – the phone or TV – and really tune in to who your baby is and what they need. Try to synchronise your behaviour and spend lots of time touching, dancing and singing – all wonderful behaviours which lead to massive releases of bonding neurochemistry, particularly key for dads who do not have the neurochemical head start provided by pregnancy. And while your influence on their actual brain chemistry is pretty much over by the age of 10, when attachments to peers come to the fore, do not doubt that your attachment to your child is crucial to their wellbeing and mental health for all their life. Children can achieve anything as long as they truly believe that you are there to return to, their secure and loving base.
Blog first published on National Parents Organisation, USA website
Dr Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist, writer and broadcaster based at The University of Oxford. She researches the science behind the close relationships that sit at the very centre of our lives; with lovers, children, friends and family. She is the author of the popular science and parenting book ‘The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father.’