The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children (2022)

London J Prim Care (Abingdon). 2016; 8(1): 12–14.

Published online 2016 Feb 24. doi:10.1080/17571472.2015.1133012

PMCID: PMC5330336

PMID: 28250823

Robert Winstona and Rebecca Chicotb,*

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Abstract

Human babies are born very dependent on their parents. They undergo huge brain development, growth and neuron pruning in the first two years of life. The brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver, usually a parent. There is increasing evidence from the fields of development psychology, neurobiology and animal epigenetic studies that neglect, parental inconsistency and a lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems as well as to reduced overall potential and happiness. In this paper, the authors consider the evidence for this claim across several disciplines and conclude that the support of babies and their parents in the first two years of life to be a crucial aim of public health groups in the community.

Keywords: Child development, mental health, parenting, bonding (psychology), neurodevelopmental disorders, epigenomics

Why this matters to me

The evidence on the powerful role of loving nurture in the emotional, social and cognitive development of children is powerful. Parenting is therefore more important than we could ever have imagined. Although I (Robert Winston) have published over 300 papers in medical journals and worked to develop IVF techniques, if I’m really honest, the most important achievement is undoubtedly my own three children. I don’t have any doubt about that. And all of us in different ways are capable of contributing to the next generation both as parents, health care professionals and as a society.

Key messages

Infancy is a crucial time for brain development. It is vital that babies and their parents are supported during this time to promote attachment. Without a good initial bond, children are less likely to grow up to become happy, independent and resilient adults.

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The science of epigenetics

Imagine if the hugs, lullabies and smiles from parents could inoculate babies against heartbreak, adolescent angst and even help them pass their exams decades later. Well, evidence from the new branch of science called epigenetics is reporting that this long-term emotional inoculation might be possible.

The human brain is an amazing organ made up of over 100 billion brain cells that each connect to over 7000 other brain cells.[1] It’s more complicated than a computer, in fact it’s most complicated object in the known universe.

The most important stage for brain development is the beginning of life, starting in the womb and then the first year of life. By the age of three, a child’s brain has reached almost 90% of its adult size.[2] This rapid brain growth and circuitry have been estimated at an astounding rate of 700–1000 synapse connections per second in this period.[3] The experiences a baby has with her caregivers are crucial to this early wiring and pruning and enable millions and millions of new connections in the brain to be made. Repeated interactions and communication lead to pathways being laid down that help memories and relationships form and learning and logic to develop.[4] This means a human baby’s brain is both complicated and vulnerable.[5]

Use it or lose it

If positive experiences do not happen, the pathways needed for normal human experiences may be lost. This is often referred to as the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.[5] Tragic case studies of ‘feral’ children who have survived with minimal human contact illustrate the severe lack of language and emotional development in the absence of love, language and attention. In the same way, even though babies have a deep genetic predisposition to bond to a loving parent, this can be disrupted if a baby’s parents or caregivers are neglectful and inconsistent.

Indeed longitudinal studies have reported that a child’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships throughout life may be significantly impaired by having an insecure attachment to a primary caregiver.[6]

Teicher [7] has reported the following pathology in children who suffered neglect (an extreme form of insecure attachment) in their early years

  • Reduced growth in the left hemisphere which may lead to associated increased depression risk for depression.

  • Increased sensitivity in the limbic system which can lead to anxiety disorders.

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  • Reduced growth in the hippocampus that could contribute to learning and memory impairments.

These findings have been backed up by cases of extreme neglect and outcomes of children raised in Romanian orphanages. Rutter et al. [8] studied the development of children adopted from Romanian orphanages who were adopted into loving families at different ages. When each child was 6years old, the researchers assessed what proportion of these adopted children was functioning ‘normally’. They found that 69% of the children adopted before the age of 6months; 43% of the children adopted between the ages of 7months and 2years and only 22% of the children adopted between the ages of 2years and 3½ years were functioning normally.

The most valuable thing is love

This highlights the importance of supporting parents and babies in their crucial early years. However, parents can worry about things that just aren’t important to their children’s brain development and well-being such as giving them their own room, buying them toys and taking them on expensive holidays. Instead, the most valuable gift that a child can receive is free; it’s simply a parent’s love, time and support. This is no empty sentiment; science is now showing why baby’s brains need love more than anything else.

The new science of epigenetics is discovering more and more how our genes and our brains are affected by the lives we lead. For example, Champagne et al. [9] showed that (related and unrelated) mice put in the care of loving mothers (who are attentive and lick them caringly) grow up to be better mothers themselves when they have pups. This effect is so strong that it can even stretch over two generations, with granddaughter mice being better mothers and be able to cope with stress better too, all because their grandmother took good care of their mother. These long-lasting benefits of good parenting in mice are dependent on chemical changes in the DNA of the mice.

These same staggering effects (called ‘methylation changes’) on the brains of mice have also now been found in humans. Studies on the brains of people who committed suicide and were abused as children show the same sorts of chemical patterns as neglected mice.[10]

Implications for health care

If depriving infants of a loving family environment causes lasting damage to their emotional well-being, their intelligence and their capacity to develop fully, what are the implications for public health in the 21st century? Being a parent has changed radically from the way human beings have had families over the last 50,000years. Expectant parents today have very little practical experience of babies in modern society.

For tens of thousands of years, new parents would have spent many years in extended families learning the skills of parenthood by osmosis from their parents, grandparents, aunts, older siblings, cousins as well as having responsibilities for their own younger brothers and sisters. Today, few parents get this opportunity to be immersed in early family life as extended families. Living in close proximity is largely a thing of the past in the UK.

A first-time pregnant woman today often only has her pregnancy (a mere nine months) to prepare for being a parent. They can therefore be hit hard by the shock of being a new parent and feel very unconfident about how to bond and care for their baby. Post-natal mood disorders are common and a potential barrier to bonding and optimal development of newborns.

A 2012 study by the Essential Parent Company showed that around 80% of new parents felt both anxious and completely unprepared with the practical skills they need to look after their new baby.[11] The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe which is perhaps not surprising when the survey reported a third of UK parents asked had never seen a family member breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a learned skill and without seeing it happening, lots of new mums really struggle to know what to do, and usually leave hospital before their milk has come in and breastfeeding has been established. This can lead to disappointment, sadness and stress for the mum and means that by six weeks of age only 20% of British babies are still being breastfed.

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These vital practical and loving parenting skills are the building blocks of babies’ care and well-being. There are few things, in our mind, that are more important to the future of our society than understanding the importance of a well-attached baby and seeking to support infants and their parents in the community.

Indeed we are in agreement with Dr Jack Shonkoff, the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University [12] and adviser to UNICEF. He argues for a ‘new role for biology’ in early year’s provision and policy in focussing interventions and support for parents’ needs for emotional and practical support as a way in to promoting secure attachment and early resilience in children.

To this end, how can health care professionals help practically in the community?

In the antenatal period, a pregnant woman is very open to new information as she prepares to be a mother. We recommend classes and baby care videos to build practical skills that help mothers to bond with their unborn baby. After birth they can continue this learning through experience – skin-to-skin contact, early breastfeeding, cuddling and carrying the baby. They need to have plenty of time in face-to-face contact to promote non-verbal communication and chatting with the baby.

The ‘Well Baby Clinic’ is a great community space to support new parents and babies. There are so many simple tips that can be shared in their space that can build parents’ confidence and happiness such as encouraging lots of eye contact, lots of cuddling and sharing books (from an early age) as all these activities help to promote bonding. Depressed parents can feel like their baby ‘hates’ them or thinks they are a terrible parent. Again, health care professionals can use this time to reassure parents that babies need very simple interactive things – cuddles, responsiveness, smiling and chatting. When parents understand that their babies are not capable of judging them they can feel reassured and confident, knowing that their baby is totally open to loving them and that s/he prefers their voice and their skin to those of anyone else.

Health care professional can share this basic and reassuring information in everyday, one-to-one conversations e.g. as they weigh babies, and also in simple leaflets and posters that promote a warm and gentle approach to parenting and to themselves.

Disclosure statement

The Essential Parent Company is a small private company. The visual materials we have produced were funded by four ‘angel investors’ who allow us to offer independent, evidence-based advice to parents and health care professionals. We also work with charities and expert organisations to ensure that our videos and articles are independent and evidence based.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank our long-term partners UNICEF UK Baby Friendly, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, St John’s Ambulance, The Child Accident Protection Trust as well as the following groups who have used our materials and helped us to reach and support families around the UK; Barnardo’s, Save the Children, NCT and PACT. Finally, we would like to thank colleagues from the Infant Mental Health Foundation for working to educate health care professionals and public health officials on the importance of early attachment relationships in the development and mental health of children and adults.

References

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  • Essential Parent Co. Survey of parental anxiety’ unpublished manuscript. N = 500 new and expectant parents. 2012
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FAQs

Why is bonding important in early childhood? ›

Bonding also promotes the development of connections between brain cells that are critical for learning; the growth of your baby's body; and the positive development of your baby's sense of who they are and how they deal with feeling upset. Newborns don't know what they need.

Why are early relationships important to later development? ›

Loving, stable and responsive relationships are fundamental to your child's development. Through relationships, children learn how to think, understand, communicate, behave, express emotions and develop social skills.

Why is bonding and attachment so important to the developing baby and child? ›

They know that the strong ties between parents and their child provide the baby's first model for intimate relationships and foster a sense of security and positive self-esteem. And parents' responsiveness to an infant's signals can affect the child's social and cognitive development.

Why is a strong attachment bond important for a child's social and emotional development? ›

Attachment to a protective caregiver helps infants to regulate their negative emotions in times of stress and distress and to explore the environment, even if it contains somewhat frightening stimuli. Attachment, a major developmental milestone in the child's life, remains an important issue throughout the lifespan.

What are the impact of secure relationships on a child's emotional well being? ›

Secure relationships can have the following impacts on a child's emotional wellbeing: Development of social skills, including communication and empathy. Fun and enjoyment, which can prevent sadness and depression. More self confidence and self-esteem.

Why the early years of life are important in terms of brain development? ›

Why the early years count. In the first years of a child's life, their brain development will create the foundations for all learning and development later in life. While genetics provide the initial 'map' for development, it is everyday experiences and relationships that shape a child's brain.

Why do early relationships matter? ›

A child's early relationships shape how their perceptions of themselves and others. They also influence how children learn to regulate their emotions and control their impulses. Children who can control their emotions and behaviours are better able to settle into the classroom and to learn.

Do early attachment relationships have long term effects? ›

Babies and young children who have attachment issues may be more likely to develop behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (Fearon et al, 2010)14. Children who have attachment issues can have difficulty forming healthy relationships when they grow up.

How do a baby's early experiences in relationships impact future brain functioning? ›

As the expectations are strengthened by similar experiences being repeated, babies' brains construct perceptions of the social and emotional world in which they live. Those perceptions influence how babies understand their environment, relate to others, and engage in learning.

Is an emotional bond that promotes the protection and survival of children during the years in which they are most vulnerable? ›

attachment that develops between children and adults is an emotional bond that promotes the the protection and survival of children during the years they are most vulnerable. The child's primary attachment figure is the person who is sought out when the child experiences some kind of distress or threat.

Why strong emotional attachments are important in the first two three years of a child's life? ›

Attachment allows children the 'secure base' necessary to explore, learn and relate, and the wellbeing, motivation, and opportunity to do so. It is important for safety, stress regulation, adaptability, and resilience.

How does secure attachment affect children during childhood and later in life as adolescents and adults? ›

Secure attachment is associated with less engagement in high risk behaviours, fewer mental health problems, and enhanced social skills and coping strategies.

What are the benefits of a secure relationship? ›

As adults, securely attached individuals tend to be comfortable with intimacy, not worried about rejection or preoccupied with their relationship. Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of adult attachment security on self-image, stress management, values and overall mental, physical and relationship health.

How does one secure relationship make a difference in a child's life? ›

Secure relationships give kids a sense of belonging.

As researcher John Bowlby has shown, a secure relationship with the parent sets children up for healthier interactions with other children, better grades, and great self-confidence as they grow and explore the world.

What are the benefits of effective relationships with the key person for children's emotional health and well being? ›

A key person approach is a way to ensure that all children and families have one or more persons within the setting with whom they have a special, nurturing relationship. The presence of a key person helps the child to feel emotionally secure when away from home and provides a reassuring point of contact for parents.

What emotional benefits do children experience as a result of living in a securely attached family? ›

When there is a secure attachment, you learn how to trust others, how to respond emotionally, and how others will respond to you (Bowlby, 1982). In addition, secure attachment leads to the development of empathy. If a child sees herself as worthwhile and deserving of care, she is also able to see others that way.

Why the first three years of a child's life are so important in their development? ›

Children are more likely to experience abuse and neglect during their first three years of life than at any other age. Because a child's developing brain is most flexible during the earliest months and years of life, this time period sets the foundation for lifelong health and wellbeing.

Why are the first years of a child's life so important? ›

The early years of a child's life are very important for later health and development. One of the main reasons is how fast the brain grows starting before birth and continuing into early childhood.

Why are the early years of a child life important? ›

The experiences children have early in life play a crucial role in the development of the brain. Exposure to positive factors, especially stable and responsive relationships with parents and other adults, and safe and supportive environments promote positive development.

Why is human bonding important? ›

Studies have found that having a variety of social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks. Strong social ties are even linked to a longer life. On the other hand, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.

How do you build relationships with children in early years? ›

Positive relationships are built through positive relationships in early years settings by being: warm and loving, fostering a sense of belonging. sensitive and responsive to the child's needs, feelings and interests. supportive of the child's own efforts and independence.

Why is it so important for children to have positive and respectful relationships? ›

Good relationships early in life help children to connect with others, build positive friendships and support children to self-regulate their emotions. For relationships to be meaningful, interactions need to be warm, caring and responsive.

What are the long term effects of secure attachment? ›

Securely attached children also tend to become more resilient and competent adults. In contrast, those who do not experience a secure attachment with their caregivers may have difficulty getting along with others and be unable to develop a sense of confidence or trust in others.

How does attachment affect mental health? ›

According to attachment theory, interactions with inconsistent, unreliable, or insensitive attachment figures interfere with the development of a secure, stable mental foundation; reduce resilience in coping with stressful life events; and predispose a person to break down psychologically in times of crisis 3.

What are the consequences of lack of attachment in childhood? ›

Children with poor attachments tend to display poor socioemotional affects, such as, poor social, coping, and problem solving skills, tantrums, clingy, withdrawn, or aggressive behaviors, etc. These negative effects, often impacts the child throughout their developmental years.

What is the core relationship supporting a child's emotional development? ›

Moreover, relationships with parents, other family members, caregivers, and teachers provide the key context for infants' social-emotional development. These special relationships influence the infant's emerging sense of self and understanding of others.

What are the most important influences on brain development during childhood? ›

Caring, Responsive Relationships

A child's relationships with the adults in their life are the most important influences on their brain development. Loving relationships with responsive, dependable adults are essential to a child's healthy development.

How do early experiences influence brain development? ›

Experience also affects the formation of the connections (synapses) among neurons to establish pathways for the different hierarchies of brain function. These pathways govern or control our intellectual, emotional, psychological, physiological and physical responses to what we do every day.

Why are early relationships important to later development? ›

Loving, stable and responsive relationships are fundamental to your child's development. Through relationships, children learn how to think, understand, communicate, behave, express emotions and develop social skills.

What is the role of the parent infant relationship in early development? ›

Infancy is a crucial time for brain development. It is vital that babies and their parents are supported during this time to promote attachment. Without a good initial bond, children are less likely to grow up to become happy, independent and resilient adults.

What happens when a mother doesn't bond with her child? ›

If bonding between the mother and child does not occur or is poorly established, it is thought to have negative consequences for their relationship. It may also reduce maternal 'feelings', leading to higher levels of maternal irritability and possible rejection and avoidance of the baby (Kinsey & Hupcey, 2013).

What is the impact of attachment on the role of the early years educator? ›

This teaches your child to trust you and to communicate with you. Attachment facilitates the development of emotional regulation, social skills, and empathy. Attachment is important for a child's overall development and learning.

How does early attachment impact on emotional and social development? ›

Attachment to a protective caregiver helps infants to regulate their negative emotions in times of stress and distress and to explore the environment, even if it contains somewhat frightening stimuli. Attachment, a major developmental milestone in the child's life, remains an important issue throughout the lifespan.

Why is bonding important for babies? ›

Attachment is when a baby and caregiver form a strong connection with each other, emotionally and physically. Bonding with your baby is important. It helps to release hormones and chemicals in the brain that encourage rapid brain growth.

Why is it important for families to spend time together? ›

Family time offers many benefits, including building confidence, creating a stronger emotional bond between family members, improving communication skills, better performance in school and reduced behavioral issues, as well as providing an opportunity to make memories built on fun, laughter and togetherness.

How can we strengthen the bonding among family members? ›

Five Steps to Strengthen Family Relationships
  1. Make eating together a habit. Find time to share a meal with your family, no matter how busy you are. ...
  2. Spend quality time. ...
  3. One-on-one time with each family member. ...
  4. Be involved. ...
  5. Share daily expressions of love and support.

What is the importance of family bond and cohesion? ›

Family bond and cohesion can be defined as a strong tie in any family setting that brings about the recognition of individual family member's rights and respect for such rights. Family cohesion is the warm or strong emotional ties that exist among family members. Family bond is the same as family cohesion.

What is the importance of effective bonding and attachment for social and emotional wellbeing in adulthood? ›

Secure attachment helps children and adults learn positive ways to manage feelings, relationships and stressful situations. It also contributes to the development of trust, autonomy and self-esteem.

Do early attachment relationships have long term effects? ›

Babies and young children who have attachment issues may be more likely to develop behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (Fearon et al, 2010)14. Children who have attachment issues can have difficulty forming healthy relationships when they grow up.

What is the relationship between having a secure infant attachment and later relationships? ›

Secure attachment causes the parts of your baby's brain responsible for social and emotional development, communication, and relationships to grow and develop in the best way possible. This relationship becomes the foundation of your child's ability to connect with others in a healthy way.

Why is it important for a child to feel safe and secure? ›

When a child feels safe, that child is able to take the risks necessary to be in relationships, to explore, and to try new things. Simply put, feeling safe makes learning possible. Research has shown that children, who feel insecure, play and explore less, and have more difficulty with peer relationships.

How do you build a secure attachment with a child? ›

How do I create a secure attachment with my baby?
  1. Hold and cuddle your baby. ...
  2. Make eye contact. ...
  3. Watch and listen to your baby. ...
  4. Comfort your baby every time she cries. ...
  5. Speak in a warm, soothing tone of voice. ...
  6. Maintain realistic expectations of your baby. ...
  7. Practice being fully present. ...
  8. Practice being self-aware.
18 Apr 2015

What could parents do to develop strong bonds with their children? ›

Greet them with warm expressions, give eye contact, smile, and encourage honest interaction.
  • Say “I love you” often. ...
  • Set boundaries, rules, and consequences. ...
  • Listen and empathize. ...
  • Play Together. ...
  • Be available and distraction-free. ...
  • Eat meals together. ...
  • Create parent-child rituals.
28 Jul 2020

What is the meaning of bonding time? ›

/ˈbɒn.dɪŋ/ the process by which a close emotional relationship is developed: Much of the bonding between mother and child takes place in those early weeks.

What does bonding mean in child development? ›

Bonding refers to the parents' sense of connection to their child. The bonding process already begins before birth and is heavily influenced by experiences during pregnancy and delivery. After birth, bonding usually develops very quickly in the first days and weeks of life.

What are the effects of bonding? ›

If bonding between the mother and child does not occur or is poorly established, it is thought to have negative consequences for their relationship. It may also reduce maternal 'feelings', leading to higher levels of maternal irritability and possible rejection and avoidance of the baby (Kinsey & Hupcey, 2013).

Why is human bonding important? ›

Studies have found that having a variety of social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks. Strong social ties are even linked to a longer life. On the other hand, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.

What happens when a child does not bond with mother? ›

This may result in a condition called attachment disorder. It usually happens to babies and children who have been neglected or abused, or who are in care or separated from their parents for some reason. The effect of not having this bond is problems with behaviour and in dealing with emotions and new situations.

How do a baby's early experiences in relationships impact future brain functioning? ›

As the expectations are strengthened by similar experiences being repeated, babies' brains construct perceptions of the social and emotional world in which they live. Those perceptions influence how babies understand their environment, relate to others, and engage in learning.

What is bonding and attachment in early childhood? ›

Bonding and attachment happen when you consistently respond to newborns with love, warmth and care. Newborns use body language to show when they want to connect with you. Good ways to bond with newborns include smiling, eye contact, singing, reading and cuddling.

Is an emotional bond that promotes the protection and survival of children during the years in which they are most vulnerable? ›

attachment that develops between children and adults is an emotional bond that promotes the the protection and survival of children during the years they are most vulnerable. The child's primary attachment figure is the person who is sought out when the child experiences some kind of distress or threat.

Why are the first 3 years important to a child's development? ›

Children are more likely to experience abuse and neglect during their first three years of life than at any other age. Because a child's developing brain is most flexible during the earliest months and years of life, this time period sets the foundation for lifelong health and wellbeing.

How strong is the bond between mother and child? ›

The mother-child bond is perhaps one of the strongest human connections. While much of that connection may be due to the natural instinct that wells up from the moment a mother first sees her child, science is shedding some light on why some mother-child bonds are particularly strong.

How important are the first two years of life? ›

Your Baby's First Years are Most Crucial for Their Brain Development. Neurological research shows that the first two years of life are the most crucial for brain development. During this period, 80 percent of the brain cells a person will ever have are manufactured.

What is a positive bonding relationship? ›

A positive bonding pattern is when both people in a relationship take care of the other's inner child in some way. The feelings that are generated are positive – in that each person feels secure, cared for, loved.

What is bonding in psychology? ›

n. the process in which attachments or other close relationships are formed between individuals, especially between mother and infant.

What is the mean of bonding? ›

Definition of bonding

1 : the formation of a close relationship (as between a mother and child or between a person and an animal) especially through frequent or constant association. 2 : the attaching of a material (such as porcelain) to a tooth surface especially for cosmetic purposes.

What is cold mother syndrome? ›

Emotionally absent or cold mothers can be unresponsive to their children's needs. They may act distracted and uninterested during interactions, or they could actively reject any attempts of the child to get close. They may continue acting this way with adult children.

What happens when bonding is interrupted? ›

Unresolved separation and loss, multiple placements, long delays in limbo (over three months), and interrupted bonding can lead to psychopathy, aggression, a loss of capacity for intimacy, and mental illness in adolescence and adulthood.

What happens when a child is separated from their mother? ›

Having your child forcibly separated from parents can induce anguish, despair, guilt, blame and depression in the parents – all powerful negative emotions that disrupt how they can learn life skills. This includes how to cope well with adversity, being resilient, not experiencing depression or anxiety.

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