The evidence is in: children who have a close bond with their parents, or primary caregivers, are more likely to have improved brain development. Find out the importance of bonding with your baby, why newborn bonding is critical to brain growth, and how to ensure your newborn thrives.
These findings are revealed in a new evidence brief Bonding: A brilliant brain builder by Dr Felicia Low, a Research Fellow at University of Auckland Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.
Her work is based on New Zealand and overseas research showing that people who lacked emotional support as infants are more likely to lead troubled lives.
Dr Low says that people understand lavishing love on a child is crucial for building a bond. But the point here is how that bond helps the child and how that affects the child’s brain development.
A child with improved brain development has lifelong benefits compared with one who hasn’t had that depth of interaction with parents or caregivers.”
Dr Low’s finding is explained by how rapidly brain development takes place in the fetus and infants. So first, let’s take a look at just how dramatic that brain development is in the crucial early-life years.
Dramatic Baby Brain Development Occurs in the Early Years
The early years of life are the most important period for brain development. From the time of birth through to infancy and early childhood, your child’s brain undergoes massive growth, with potentially more than a million new neural connections being formed every second!
This rapid brain growth is key to physiological and behavioural functions and capacities, including physical abilities, early language skills, learning and memory, and emotional development.
The period between birth to the age of two – often called the first 1,000 days – is particularly crucial.
Substantial brain growth occurs in utero, and at birth babies’ brains are just over a quarter the size of the adult brain. By the first year, the brain has already more than doubled in volume, and it reaches 80% of adult size by the age of two!
Ways to Promote Newborn Bonding
Before birth, certainly by the second trimester, many parts of your baby’s hearing system are functional. There is evidence that sound recognition and learning occur in utero.
For example, newborns tend to prefer their mother’s voice to a stranger’s, their mother’s native language to another language, and even a story that had been read aloud during gestation compared to a new story.
After birth, repeated skin-to-skin contact (also known as kangaroo care for premature infants) stimulates many physiological changes in both mother and newborn that help establish bonding immediately and in the longer term.
Skin-to-skin care promotes the release of maternal oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social interaction and bonding by countering stress responses and promoting growth.
Breastfeeding may help with bonding, with more months of breastfeeding associated with greater maternal sensitivity (responsiveness to the baby and its cues) even up to a decade later. Non-breastfed babies can be bottle fed with skin-to-skin contact to also promote bonding.
Ways to Promote Toddler Bonding
Infancy (0 to 2 years)
Consistent affectionate touch from a parent has established benefits for the infant, including regulating stress responses and immune function, and promoting psychosocial development and secure attachment.
Parent-infant bonding can also be strengthened by exposing the growing infant to an environment rich in so-called ‘serve-and-return’ interactions.
This sporting metaphor describes how children continually seek interaction from their caregivers through ‘serves’ – in infants, these cues include vocalising, facial expressions and crying – which prompt the adult to respond with eye contact, reassuring words or a hug (‘returning the serve’).
Adult-child play inherently provides opportunities for serve-and-return exchanges. For young infants, simple games such as copycat, peekaboo and naming objects can help to focus attention, use working memory, build language connections, develop self-control and build trust in the adult. Learn more about the benefits of creative play.
Early childhood (2 to 5 years)
Spending meaningful time with a young child in a way that involves their growing interests helps promote bonding. A good example is shared book reading. This can provide numerous serve-and-return Bonding: A brilliant brain builder 6 experiences if the parent and child together review the book content during the process with questions, answers and comments.
Having meaningful conversations with a child also strengthens bonding. Indeed, a greater number of conversations with parents has been directly linked to greater activation of Broca’s area (the brain region responsible for processing language) in four to six-year-old children, independent of socioeconomic status.
The Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study has found that children who demonstrated higher levels of self-control at age four and a half were more likely to have been read to or told stories by their mothers. Find out more about the importance of sharing memories with toddlers.
Key Benefits of Bonding with Your Baby
There are some amazing benefits to newborn bonding, that can set up your baby for lifelong success, so they can reach their true potential:
- Early-life brain development sets up lifelong success
The brain develops rapidly in utero and during infancy, and good, early-life brain development helps children achieve lifelong success.
- Strong bonds promote early brain development
Strong bonds between children and their parents/caregivers, with a supportive and nurturing parenting style, help promote early brain development.
- Poor parent-child bonding negatively impacts development
The opposite of this is also true, lack of a strong parent-child bond may negatively affect brain development, with lifelong consequences.
- Daddy-bonding is just as important
Bonding should involve the people most important in the child’s life, this includes a child’s father or male caregiver, but many fathers aren’t able to engage in early-life bonding due to lack of support.
- Baby bonding leave is critical
Factors such as paid parental leave, screen time of parents and children, parental mental health and greater paternal involvement are critical to creating a strong bond.
It’s long been acknowledged that children benefit from a strong bond with their parents, but just how bonding works, and what the real benefits are to the child aren’t well known. This research shows that the importance of bonding with your baby is critical to early childhood development.
For more expert advice on development in the early years, check out our Babies: Development section.