Amazing Research About Babies And Love

When we look at a baby, you can't help but wonder. What is going on inside? Where does its personality come from? How do they become who they are?

As a scientist and a new parent, I realize that babies are born totally helpless. But they're going to grow up to be masters of the universe. How does that happen?

What's exciting right now, is we have so many new ways to answer those questions. We realize now that even the very youngest babies already know more and learn more than we ever would've thought possible.


Isn't it amazing that the answer to what it means to be human lies in the smallest, youngest creatures? Our babies.

Ruth Feldman, Director, Centre for Developmental Social Neuroscience, IDC Herzliya, Israel, explains further.

The relationship with our parents is the most meaningful experience. It has such a huge impact on how a baby develops and experiences the world.

I was 22 when Estie, my oldest daughter, was born. She was placed on my chest, and I think at that moment I felt what it means to love. Then, being a scientist, I wanted to understand what's happening in the brain when we fall in love with our babies. What is the biology of bonding? Back in the early '90s, we didn't have a full understanding of how the bonding between mother and baby develops. 

In my research, I came across several scientific papers that described the importance of the hormone oxytocin to bonding in mammals. And that really opened my eyes. So I wondered if oxytocin would be involved in the bonding I experienced with my own children.

In 2001, we started the first study to test the role of oxytocin in parent/infant bonding. This was a real adventure. We recruited about 80 mothers, and we traveled up and down the country to collect the samples throughout pregnancy, and in the first month after childbirth.

And what we found was that oxytocin levels in mothers rise during pregnancy, and they stay high throughout pregnancy and right after childbirth.

What we also realized, that when mother and infant touch each other a lot, the oxytocin levels in both go higher, and this makes you want to engage with the baby more. The brain gives the mother the sense of intense reward. So the higher the oxytocin the mother had, the more she bonded with her infant.

But I always knew that this is only half of the equation. I began to wonder what's going on with fathers.

For the next study, we wanted to see if there's an impact on the level of oxytocin in fathers. So we recruited 80 couples. And we measured oxytocin in fathers, in the first months, right after the child's birth.

And when we looked at the results, it was really shocking. Mothers' and fathers' level of oxytocin were identical. And that was a huge surprise.

We know for over a hundred years that mothers get a surge of oxytocin during pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. But how do fathers get so much oxytocin?

We discovered that the more you do with a baby, and really lift your sleeves, and take care of the child, and wash it, and feed it, engage in a parental role, the more your oxytocin system will activate.

And this is amazing. Fatherhood is biological. It's as deep as motherhood.

We all know that when the baby cries at night, it's usually the mom that hears it. And maybe the dad will get up, change the baby, but it's the mother who is not able to sleep.

When we looked at mom's brain, we found that the oxytocin surge at birth activates a very primitive structure. The amygdala. This is the amygdala. You see it in both sides of the brain. It makes us vigilant. It makes us worry about the infant.

And once the mother's amygdala is open, it stays like this forever, no matter how old your child is. When we look at dad's brain, we saw quite a different story. It's about a quarter of what you see in mom's.

But not every family has a mother.

In 2010, we recruited a unique group of parents where there was no mother. We had 48 gay couples who were living in a partnered, committed relationship and had a child through surrogacy, and had the baby from the first day of life.

We videotaped in the home, the baby interacting with the parents, and we took it to the lab to code it. We also measured oxytocin levels. And we scanned father's brain. And when we analyzed the results, we were in for a big surprise.

When fathers are primary caregiver, they had amygdala activation just like mothers. We had no idea that we would find that. 

Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing activate the maternal brain. But also, it's activated to the same extent by committed caregiving. So it doesn't really matter whether you are the biological parent or a committed caregiving parent. It's a choice. It's a choice to be a parent to that infant.

Ed Tronick, Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, USA, explains further.

I came to the Psychology Department at Harvard University in 1968. Back then, everyone was doing hard science studies. Visual perception, learning, memory. But I was really interested in what's going on between mothers and their infants. And that had never really been looked at before.

I actually had one of my professors put his hand around my shoulder and say, "This emotion stuff is not what you want to be doing." 

And somehow, I resisted that, because I wanted to ask, "Is the baby born ready to engage in social relationships?" Or, "Is the baby just sort of passive?"

This led me to the development of the still face experiment. We had mothers playing with young babies, three, four, five months of age. 

If the infant got really excited, the mother got really excited. Then we asked mothers to stop reacting to the baby for about two minutes, to see what the baby would do. The babies immediately picked up that the mother wasn't reacting the way she typically did. They would smile at her. Eventually, the babies might cry. But they would keep on trying to get back into a relationship. 

It was clear that the baby is born with the capacity to engage in social interaction. It's something that's built in and critical to us. And if a relationship gets disrupted it has a very powerful emotional effect on be it a baby or an adult.

Stress is inevitable. You really can't avoid it. So does a good relationship between the parent and a baby help the baby cope with stress?

We have set up a new way to use the still face experiment where we look at the amount of stress that the infant experiences. So we will take several measures of both you and your baby.

The first thing we do is we take a sample of the baby's saliva and look at the level of a stress hormone called cortisol. The higher the level of cortisol, the greater the level of stress for the infant.

The still face experiment helps us to see what goes on in regular interactions between the mother and the baby. What we see there is that they're matching one another, they're dancing coordinated.

As soon as we start, the baby sees something has changed. They know it right away. Babies try to elicit her response. They may start to fuss, even cry, when she's not responding. She's complaining a lot. But eventually, they bring their hands up to their mouth and comfort themselves.

And it doesn't take long for the baby and the mother to figure out ways to reconnect after the stress of the still face experiment. And that's really important for the infant. It means that the infant is able to trust this person to fix, to repair, after something has gone wrong in the interaction.

When we look at the levels of cortisol during the experiment, we find that where an infant has positive experience with their parents, the infant is less stressed during the still face and shows lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

It's really a pretty amazing finding, and it speaks to the effect of parenting on how the infant will be in the world. Every parent struggles to find out, "What does my baby need now?"

But if you keep on trying, you'll find out the answers. Trust your baby to tell you what it is that he or she needs and trust your own instincts about how to be responding.

That's how the two of you... fall in love with one another.

Anne Rifkin-Graboi, Head, Infancy and Early Childhood Research, NIE, NTU, Singapore, explains further.

As a parent, I'm faced with constant dilemmas every day. I really want my children to be adventurous and courageous, but I also really want to keep them safe. These are real choices.

So I've wondered, what kind of impact can these parenting choices have on the baby's development?
A newborn's brain is developing quite rapidly in early life. I wanted to design a study that would allow us to look at if parenting would affect the infant's brain during this unique period of life.

When we first started looking at this, to my knowledge, there wasn't much on just differences in parenting and the infant's brain. So we really needed scans of babies' brains right after they were born, before they'd experienced really any parenting styles.

And then fortunately we had this great opportunity to take advantage of a much larger study, the Growing Up In Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes study.

In this study, these babies had already been scanned within the first few weeks of life. So we had a sort of baseline for brain development. We needed to follow those babies to six months, take another scan of their brain, and also observe differences in parenting style.

So we brought in the moms and babies when the babies were six months of age, and we observed the parenting behavior in the laboratory. What I'm really looking at is how attentive and responsive is a parent to the infant's signals?

We had 20 babies, and we rated the mother's behavior using a system of descriptive cards. Do they respond to what the infant is doing?

If the baby is reaching for something, does she let the child choose, or does she choose? 

These interactions are really small, and sometimes they're really quick. But over time, they add together to complete a picture of what the relationship is like.

We had looked to see differences in parenting style. Now we needed to see how do these parenting styles affect areas of the infant's brain?

And to do that, we needed to take the babies back into the MRI for their six-month scan. It's really hard to scan a baby. Because for a successful scan you need to stay still. And that's not something that comes naturally to infants. So to make it easier, babies are fed before so they fall asleep.

I went to my colleague Anqi Qiu, an expert in neural imaging, whose team processed the data. I was really excited to see what she had found.

Here is actually the structural image. And now you can see red dots showing up. That's where the hippocampus is. So this is just one baby, though, right? Yes, it is. But if you look at all the scans we have, you look at individuals, and they have a very similar pattern. This was really quite incredible.

The hippocampus, this area towards the middle of the brain, that differed according to parenting styles. The infants who had received less responsive caregiving, their hippocampi were a bit bigger.

This was surprising, because the hippocampus is really important to learning and to managing distress. So what it suggests is that the babies were having to manage their own stress, because they're not getting quite as much support from their parents.

Even at six months, these everyday differences in parenting were actually linked to observable differences in the structure of the infant brain. To my knowledge, that was the first time a group had seen this.

When a parent is attentive and responsive, the baby is learning that the world is a safe place, and that frees up time for them to explore their environment. When a baby doesn't get those same signals from the parent, the baby may need to prioritize thinking about safety and comfort rather than exploration.

I'm the last person to say that parenting is easy. None of us do this perfectly.

What is important is that the overall experience that the child is receiving is one of attentive and responsive care. And I think, for parents, that's reassuring.

Next episodes...

Babies are the ultimate mystery. They're much more complex than we ever thought. How do they learn language? Why are they sleeping so much? How is it that babies learn to crawl, and what do they learn when they're crawling around in the world? One of the great puzzles is, what's it like to be a baby?

Source: Netflix.

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