(The following excerpt from Why Synchronize And Bond With Your Children by Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
Have you ever wondered why some people are so much happier working in groups than others? Or how some couples stay madly in love and remain attached to each other for decades? The answer may actually lie in their early-childhood and infancy experiences with their parents and caregivers. The research of Dr. Ruth Feldman* suggests precisely that.
In childhood, we learn to love from our interactions with our parents. It is through our parents and primary caregivers that we first develop selective attachments (in that we understand the uniqueness of certain relationships). We develop enduring attachments (in that some relationships last a very long time) attachments. Secure attachment (trusting, reciprocal relationship) in early life is a necessary process for a good social life. The ways our parents treat us in infancy lay the groundwork for our treatment of all relationships in the future, including romantic and platonic ones (Feldman, 2014). Feldman (2014) suggests that this is due to an underlying trait that influences all relationships, called synchrony.
Synchrony is the ability to coordinate actions and collaborate towards a common goal. Dr. Feldman gives the example of ants working together in an anthill. Studies have shown that these insects are able to detect certain biological cues from other members of the colony, and can use these cues to predict the behaviors and goals of the others. They then adapt their own behavior to help achieve the goals of the group (carrying food, building the anthill, etc.). Mammals exhibit the same quality, but rather than learn from chemical cues as ants do, they practice and develop synchrony in early life through interaction with and proximity to parents,.
The development of healthy synchronic bonds is the cornerstone of adaptive social life, according to Dr. Feldman. Also, unlike ants, each human synchronic bond is unique. For example, each parent-child dyad develops its own playful interactions. Similarly, spouses can become sensitive to their partner’s specific bio-social cues over time (the way she rubs her nose when upset, the way he breathes when he’s stressed, etc.). In humans, synchrony is heavily dependent on attachment, due to the personal nature of our synchronic bonds, first established with parents in early life.
Oxytocin, a neural hormone, plays an essential role in bonding and attachment. Here are some fast facts about the famous “cuddle hormone:”
Oxytocin is related to dopamine levels and immunity strength- higher levels of oxytocin mean greater overall happiness and healthiness.
Oxytocin has a strong epigenetic effect- early social experiences (mainly parent-infant interactions) shape future levels of this hormone, and therefore the ability to bond with others.
“Normal” Oxytocin levels can vary greatly from person to person (it can range from 11-4000 pg/ml) but within an individual this is a stable number i.e. a person with a normal level of 2000 pg/ml will never suddenly drop to 100 pg/ml, and vice versa. Precisely what level is “normal” or baseline for a person is partially genetic, but is also affected and set in early-life.
Oxytocin’s release can be stimulated by touch, hence its nickname “the cuddle hormone.”
It is clear how crucial a role Oxytocin plays in attachment and bonding, but what parental behaviors specifically affect this hormone’s presence in infants? Prof. Feldman offers the following examples as being especially important. These can be performed by both parents, but are more commonly done by the mother in the first few months after birth:
“Motherese” vocalizations- babbling and other baby-talk noises have been shown to positively affect infant oxytocin levels.
Face to face contact- intimate facial contact synchronizes the mother’s and infant’s hormone levels in an almost dance-like rhythm.
Breastfeeding transfers oxytocin to the infant and releases oxytocin in the mother, relaxing and bonding them together
Physical social play increases oxytocin in parents…
Affectionate touch- Even without breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact is particularly effective at promoting oxytocin release. You’ve probably heard that cuddling with your romantic partner releases oxytocin and makes the two of you feel closer. This is true for mothers and their babies as well. Caresses, breastfeeding, and holding all contribute to positive development of oxytocin pathways in the infant brain, and makes moms feel great too!
As humans, our relationships with others are crucial to our survival and advancement. Being able to work together and understand others is key to any group’s success, be that a family or a government. Prof. Feldman has shown how important parental behaviors toward their children can affect the child’s ability to enjoy healthy future relationships, including the adults and work colleagues we become.
Advice to parents: Show your kids affectionate attention. Cuddle with them as much as you can. You may be doing more good than you realize.
* Dr. Ruth Feldman is a Professor of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University and an adjunct professor at the Child Study Center at Yale University. She primarily researches childhood stress and trauma, development of parent-child relations, and neurological bases of communication.