When you see a newborn baby, what is your first impression? A sweet bundle of gurgles and coos? A vulnerable innocent with wide impressionable eyes? Or perhaps, more thoughtfully, you wonder what this little person might become or do in life? No doubt there is a mixture of emotion and thought as new parents meet their little one for the first time. Parents, as the primary caregivers, have such an incredible influence on the newborn in its first few weeks and months.
From the first moment the baby is given to his mother to hold a special bond is created; mother and infant touch, baby looks at her mother for the first time, mother smiles back. Interestingly there is more going on here than meets the eye. In fact, there is actually a bio-chemical reaction going on within this very first interaction. The hormone, oxytocin—also called the “love hormone”—is at its highest just after birth. This hormone promotes bonding between mother and baby and can also influence the father, who is additionally influenced to bond with mother and child just after birth through the hormone, vasopressin. Vasopressin influences the man’s brain towards more paternal tendencies when he and mother cohabitate, tempering his aggression but still influencing his protective instincts. In ancient days, the bonding of the baby with its parents actually increased the infant’s chances for survival. It also helped the baby to thrive. Perhaps we are not so far removed from our ancestors after all.
The birthing and bonding process, in itself, is a miraculous event. Parents seem bio-chemically wired to respond to their infants, while infants are naturally wired to respond in their own fashion, having the ability—even at the earliest stages of life—to interact with their caregivers and their environment. Parents who are sensitive to their infant’s cues are able to lay the most fundamental foundation in their child’s life—all by simply interacting. This foundation will enhance the infant’s ability for responding to new situations, for socialization, and for the very essence of learning. These essential moments, completed in the brain through neural connections, establish the child’s capacity to form attachments. During those early interactions, that capacity is either established or hindered. Healthy attachments assist the baby as she grows socially, emotionally, and physically, enabling the child to better handle the stresses and challenges found within the learning curves of life. Thus, the very basic foundation of life begins with mother and baby’s first touch.
Some of the first effects of this foundation can be seen when the baby receives her first shots. Infants who established that core connection through touch, receiving the security and soothing of their mothers during the process, have less of a stress response when given immunizations. Studies with primates show the same results. A baby monkey who had access to its mother for touch and soothing while receiving a vaccination had a better physiological response to the vaccination. Furthermore, children at two years of age—who were observed to have a close bonding experience with their mothers—needed fewer commands, asked more questions, and had a more elaborate and descriptive vocabulary.
When parents respond to their infant’s needs in an appropriate manner, they are helping the baby to regulate her emotions, adapt to her environment and to become socialized. Consistent, predictable interactions and care given to the baby by the parent increases the baby’s sense of security; ”my world is safe,” ”my needs are being met,” “I am loveable and loved,” “I have value and am valued,” “there is good and I am good.” This lays the foundation for attachment, self-regulation, relationships, and forms the basis for the child’s identity and concept of self later in life.