*First author is EJ Smith

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. 

References

Ruth Feldman, R. (2014). Synchrony: A Neurobiological Attribute of the Social Human. Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

Yael Apter-Levi, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, Ruth Feldman (in press).  Oxytocin and Vasopressin Support Distinct Configurations of Social Synchrony.  Brain research

Shir Atzil, Talma Hendler, Ruth Feldman (2013). The brain basis of social synchrony.  Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nst105

Ruth Feldman, Esther Bamberger, Yaniv Kanat-Maymon (2013). Parent specific reciprocity from infancy to adolescence shapes children's social competence and dialogical skills, Attachment & Human Development, DOI:10.1080/14616734.2013.782650

SERIES ON CHILD FLOURISHING*

1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

ALSO SEE:

What is Child Flourishing?

Happiness and Growth through Play

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

How to Grow a Smart Baby

SEE NEW BOOK for more on synchrony and development of self concept, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.

POSTS ON PARENTING ISSUES AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT:

INFANT SLEEP AND SLEEP TRAINING:

6 Hidden Myths Behind Baby Sleep Training Advocacy

Child Sleep Training’s “Best Review of Research”

Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports

                  REBUTTAL to critique of "Parents Misled by...Sleep Training Reports"

Dangers of "Crying it Out"

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives

BIRTH

New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?

CIRCUMCISION

Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe

BREASTFEEDING

Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

Breastfeeding Resources

The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding

5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?

PARENTING: GENERAL

Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.

CHILDREN’S RIGHTS

Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

Increase the well-being of children around you

NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:

When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)

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