Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love Chapter 2

Maternal bond

Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love

While there is no single, master template for the relationship between mother and infant, within this first bond are important elements that will also play roles in a child’s broader social ties.

Ultimately, all bonds are built on the cornerstone of communication. The fundamental bond between mother and child is the result of an ongoing conversation conducted on multiple levels, from the physiological to the emotional, cognitive, and social.

Few infant animals depend on parental care longer than human babies or the offspring of our closest primate kin. Orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla babies, for example, can nurse for 4-7 years. It isn’t until the teenage years that human children’s bodies and brains even finish growing. And that means an extraordinary commitment is required on the part of parents.

That human beings find babies irresistible and are prepared to invest so many resources into their upbringing is not just a happy coincidence or even high-mindedness on our part, according to evolutionary-minded biologists. In the 1950s, the Nobel-prize winning zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified some of the specific physical attributes of innate infant cuteness: an oversize head, large eyes, chubby cheeks, and plump, stubby arms and legs. Think of the anthropomorphized woodland creatures in Disney’s Bambi and you get the picture.

Not all newborns, of course, have baby movie star looks, and yet we love and nurture them. But many evolutionists still believe that babies are physically more attractive than they really “need” to be. These researchers argue that if you imagine evolution from the infant’s perspective, you can see what a bonus it is to be irresistible. No surprise, then, these researchers say, that newborns are designed to deliver the message, “Take care of me—I’m worth the long investment!”

Mother Love

But isn’t a mother’s love automatic? Well, yes, basically, but as with all things human, it’s more interesting (and complicated) than that. More interesting because much of what we think we do because we just “know” to do it has underlying evolutionary explanations, and more complicated because culture puts its own spin on what we consider natural.

There has, in fact, been no shortage of opinions, a great many of them from men, on whether a mother’s love is innate, according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book, Mother Nature. In 1871 Darwin wrote, “Woman seems to differ from man in her greater tenderness and less selfishness. Woman, owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities toward her infants in an eminent degree.” Flattering, sure, but is it true? In the 1950s, psychologist Erich Fromm upped the ante, when he wrote: “Mother’s love is unconditional, it is all-protective, all enveloping; because it is unconditional it can not be controlled or acquired.”

But, what, asks anthropologist Hrdy, is meant by instinctive? Or unconditional? In Mother Nature, Hrdy also cites the more cautious voice of George Eliot, the pen name of the 19th century writer Mary Ann Evans, who warned of “the folly of absolute definitions of woman’s nature.” In the 1960s, Eliot’s prescient warning would be at the heart of the feminist movement, which challenged the notions of what was and wasn’t innate female behavior, including those surrounding motherhood.

Since then, a great many scientists have entered the fray, tracking the ebb and flow of maternal hormones and mapping the neurochemical circuits of motherhood. But in their eagerness to dissect and analyze the mother-infant bond, are researchers guilty of “unweaving the rainbow,” as poet John Keats accused Issac Newton of doing with his theory of optics? Not by a long shot. “Being a mother has never been simple,” writes Hrdy, and today, perhaps more than ever, the choices and complications of motherhood can resemble a “minefield.” Understanding the biological roots of the bond between mother and child, however, can only deepen our appreciation and understanding of this extraordinary relationship.

The case for mother love has never been stronger. “You cannot separate emotions from biology,” says Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of more than 50 books, including Magical Beginnings, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. “When two people are in love or when a mother is bonding with her baby,” explains Chopra, all of the elements of mother-infant bond are mediated through biology: “the smell, the skin-to-skin contact, the facial expressions, eye movements, body language, the kissing, the cooing, the cuddling, the tone of the mother’s voice, the baby talk. This is all part of the orchestration of bonding between the mother and the baby.”

There will never be a final word on the mother-infant bond, not from scientists, painters, or poets. Thank goodness! But there is a provocative perspective that can help frame the subject. Many decades ago Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, stated “there’s no such thing as a baby.” It was a startling proposition. But the point that Winnicott, a pioneer in exploring the nature and importance of the mother-infant bond, wanted to convey was that there is never “just” a baby. There is a baby and her mother. And, more broadly, there is baby, her mother, her family, community, and a whole host of relationships that are critical to babies growing, learning, and realizing their potential.

More on this topic

Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love (VIDEO)

Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love

Establishing New Life

Nurture & Protect

Growth & Sensations

Adapting & Anticipating

Joyous Mom, Joyous Baby

Your Baby Enters the World

Nourishing Body & Bond

Mother & Teacher

Nurturing Development

A Mutual Gaze

From Bump to Bundle

Related Health Centers:

Infant Nutrition Health Center, Mother-Baby Bond Health Center, Mother’s Milk Health Center, Monthly Infant Development Calendar Health Center,Weekly Pregnancy Calendar Health Center

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