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The Science of Love

Written by Louise Legg

It is clear from this past year that we have all started to appreciate the importance of interaction and physical touch a little more.


Grandparents are desperate for hugs with their grandchildren, friends are missing their coffee shop chats and children long to interact with others their own age. Whilst technology has provided us with innovative ways to stay in touch during this time, talking via a screen will never be the same as actually seeing a loved one face-to-face. One of the many things that lockdown has taught us is that human closeness and connection is important.


Attachment theory was first developed by British Psychologist, John Bowlby, and is used to explain the development of the parent-child relationship and the impact this has on a child’s social, cognitive and emotional development. Bowlby was interested in explaining the extreme distress he saw in infants when they were separated from a caregiver - behaviour we now call ‘separation anxiety.’ His theoretical work was based on his experiences of working as a child psychiatrist in a London Child Guidance clinic. Bowlby’s work has had a huge impact on what we know about child development today and the importance of emotional connection in the early years of life.


Attachment is defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people, which lasts across time and space. In other words, attachment is two-way. It cannot be unrequited and it remains strong even when individuals are separated from each other for short or lengthy periods of time. Unlike other species who attach immediately after birth (for example birds), humans develop attachments over a few months with the process beginning at birth. When babies are born they are very cute. Tiny fingers and toes, little button nose, big eyes and soft skin. Scientists believe that this elicits caregiving behaviours from adults so that babies can survive. Essentially, babies are created in such a way that makes us love them! Being cute and small means that we care for them and provide for their needs. This is called the ‘baby face hypothesis’ and we often see it utilised by toy makers and Disney.







Consider how Thumper, Nemo and little Moana all have big heads, small features and huge eyes! They are purposely made to be cute so that we fall in love with them! In the same way, Bowlby believed that infants are born needing to be close to a caregiver as this helps them to survive and enables them to find security when they feel stressed or anxious. Their cute features and behaviours (which he called ‘social releasers’) makes us want to care for them.


It is clear from this past year that we have all started to appreciate the importance of interaction and physical touch a little more.



The importance of interaction


Attachment begins with meaningful social interactions between an infant and its caregiver. For example, the time spent cuddling babies, talking to them, singing lullabies or playing. The responsiveness of a caregiver has profound effects on a child's development. In fact, research has shown that an infant is more likely to form attachments with the adult who responds appropriately and most sensitively to their needs rather than the person who spends the most time with them or feeds them. In effect, this means that there is no such thing as spoiling a baby with too many cuddles. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we hold our babies and interact with them, the stronger the emotional bond will be, which in turn will lead to positive and healthy emotional and psychological development.


Parenting is biological


What is hugely fascinating is the biological aspect of human interaction and connectedness. Hormones play a vital role in attachment, particularly the hormone oxytocin, also known as ‘the love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’! This hormone has an important role to play in love making as well as pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. It is oxytocin that enables the uterus to contract during labour and breastmilk to excrete through the nipple for nursing.


What is particularly interesting about oxytocin is that when it is released, it stimulates more of its own release, which is why contractions during labour become more intense and frequent. When a mother gives birth, her body is flooded with oxytocin that not only helps with feeding her baby, but also with bonding. This is also why we are encouraged to have skin to skin contact with our babies, as this helps the release of oxytocin, which enables the bonding process. The good news is that the more that we interact with our babies, the more oxytocin is released, the more we bond and the stronger the attachment. It is amazing that our bodies are equipped biologically to help us attach to our offspring!


Don’t forget dads !


Research into attachment is notoriously focused on mothers and only in recent years has begun to investigate the role of the father and other attachment figures. It is widely known that oxytocin has a significant role to play in motherhood, but what about fatherhood? Traditionally men have been viewed as not being ‘biologically equipped’ to care for young children in the same way as mothers do and therefore are unable to take a nurturing role. However, psychologists such as Ruth Feldman have investigated the role of oxytocin in caregiving fathers. They measured the levels of the hormone in mothers’ and fathers’ saliva samples in the first month of their baby’s life. They were amazed to find that fathers had the same levels of oxytocin as the mothers. This was not expected and amazed the researchers. In explaining the findings, they discovered that the more that fathers took care of the infant through bathing, feeding, cuddling, interacting, playing, the more the oxytocin system was activated.

This means that the bond between a dad and his baby can be just as strong as between mum and baby, it just takes a little more time, effort and energy to develop the bond. This means allowing dads the opportunity to get their hands dirty from day one. This is great news for mums who may feel guilty about taking some time out in those early days after childbirth!


So what does responsive caregiving look like?


Responsive caregiving involves being in-tune with our babies and responding to their signals. On a daily basis it means responding to cries with a soothing, calming tone of voice, reassuring your baby that you are there, smiling when they smile or talking back at them when they initiate interactions through cooing and gurgling. It also involves respecting their need for a break from interaction sometimes. Babies go through alert phases throughout the day - moments when they are looking for interaction. But when they have had enough (which can be quite quickly), they may look away, which is often a signal that they need time to refocus and process information. Responsive caregiving also involves acting on our babies’ interests and being guided by what catches their attention. Sometimes this may be something seemingly insignificant like a packet of tissues, a wooden spoon or the corner of a skirting board! It is talking with them throughout the day and naming activities such as giving them warning, even as newborns, of what you are about to do. For example, ‘I am going to change your nappy now…in a minute we are going to go in the car...’


Secure attachments


One of the difficult parts of parenting is having episodes of clinginess. At the age of around 6-7 months, babies start to go through the specific attachment stage where they form significant attachments to one particular caregiver. This leads to high levels of stranger and separation anxiety. Suddenly your baby doesn't like to be held by anyone other than mum or dad. They may cry inconsolably if you leave the room for two minutes to go to the toilet. This can catch us by surprise and can be exhausting! But do not be alarmed. This is a phase that all babies go through and it is an important one. During this stage babies are learning that not all objects exist when they are out of sight. But it is a time of developing trust. Babies soon learn over time that mum and/or dad do always come back and can be trusted. During this time it is good to talk your baby through your movements. Tell them when you are leaving the room and that you will be straight back. Avoid the urge to sneak off without them noticing - the distress will be harder to bear when they suddenly realise you are gone. Talk to them from the neighbouring room and remind them, ‘I am here, I will be back soon.’ This helps to build trust and teaches them that you do come back. Be encouraged by this behaviour - it is a good sign of a secure attachment!


Parenting is hard and those early baby days are exhausting. The most important thing to learn from all this science is that attachment is key - it is important for the parent-child relationship but also for setting your child up for life. So today, let those cuddles linger a little longer and enjoy the pleasure that comes from being close to the one that you love.


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