Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Autism
The Pregnancy Blog Carnival

The Mother/Baby Attachment Gap

A mother's feeling of deep love and connection with the newborn doesn’t always happen immediately. In 1978, 97 mothers in the UK were asked, "When did you first feel love for your baby?" More than half felt the love during pregnancy or at birth: 41 percent during pregnancy and 24 percent at birth. Another 27 percent felt love during the first week, and 8 percent felt it later than that.

In a 1980 study of first-time mothers, 40 percent said their predominant emotional reaction when first holding their babies was one of indifference. Indifferent mothers were more likely to have had their membranes ruptured artificially, endured a painful labor or taken a dose of Demerol.

The studies on when mothers fall in love with their babies are discussed in "Bonding: The Beginnings of Parent-Infant Attachment," by Marshall Klaus and John Kennell.

If a new mother doesn’t fall in love with her baby, she may nurse him less, spend less time gazing into his eyes and keeping him close to her. She may experience his cries of need as demanding and unreasonable, and respond to them less readily. Her baby soon learns to see the world as a place of insufficient resources and human attachment as fraught with uncertainty and discomfort.

There are many reasons why new mothers don't bond with their babies. Even a baby that isn’t "pretty" can put the mother off, while birth defects or the skinny, wrinkly look of a preemie can fail to evoke the maternal instinct.

But there's one special culprit: c-section delivery. Studies have confirmed that cesarean births can create a mother-baby attachment gap. Women who give birth vaginally produce significantly more oxytocin pulses when they begin breastfeeding than do women who had cesareans, and this pattern can set the stage for the entire breastfeeding period.

Mothers who undergo c-sections feel less positive about the experience and have less physical and emotional energy for mothering.  They often feel less confident about their mothering. Mothers who give birth vaginally, on the other hand, tend to be more emotionally involved in taking care of their babies and more attached to them.

Cesarean mothers were less satisfied with their birth experiences and remained so over time. They're less likely ever to breast-feed, take longer to begin to interact with their babies, have less positive reactions to them after birth, and interact less with them at home.  In one study, a month after cesarean birth, the mothers had much less eye-to-eye contact with their babies.

This attachment gap is not only on the mother's side. The infant brain is not fully developed; it must learn the oxytocin response through interactions with the mother. As she loves and nurtures the baby, he learns to love back.

The indifferent mother, the anxious mother, the frightened one, teachers her baby something very different. She teaches him that it's frightening to be close, that other people won't care for him and cherish him. He'll remember these lessons all his life.

See also: Falling in Love with the Baby