How does bonding with our children affect their brain?

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of

Montreal, Canada.

Although my daughter is only 13 months, she has taught me so much about life. The most important thing she has taught me is to slow down and enjoy life. For as long as I could remember, all I did was work. I regretfully never had time for friends, family or my husband. During almost 9 years of graduate studies, I worked 7 days a week and reached 100+ hours a week way too often. When I got pregnant with my daughter I had 3 jobs, 2 of which were full-time. My life has always been all about work, but now, my life is her. Although I am running Curious Neuron, I am home with my daughter during the day. I work when she naps, at night and on weekends. My life can still get a little hectic at times. However, when I am with my daughter, nothing else matters. Regardless of the many deadlines I have, I learned not to think about these when I am with her. This has been a challenge and naturally, sometimes I have a little slip. Today was one of those days. 

I had lots to do today and as I was getting her ready for her nap I was mentally planning out everything I needed to get done during that nap and I was feeling overwhelmed. She fell asleep in my arms and as I lay her in her crib she woke up crying. I picked her up and walked around with her in my arms until she fell asleep again. This time, I waited a little longer to make sure she was in a deep sleep and I thought to myself, "Please, please sleep. I have so much work to do!!". However, as soon as I lay her down she woke up and cried. I tried once more but to no avail. 

I sat down in the chair next to her crib and started feeling anxious. I had so much work to do, but then I realized that I was missing out on this precious moment. My daughter still needs me to cuddle with her. Right now, she just wants to hear my heart beat and be with me. One day, she will be older and I will long for the days where she napped on me and I could just hold her and be in the moment, forgetting about everything else. By thinking of work at this moment, I was taking something away from it. So I stopped thinking of work, kissed her head and held her as she took her nap. When she woke about an hour later, she looked up and me and smiled. 

Bonding and the brain. 

This got me thinking about the importance of bonding with our children and how it impacts both the brain of both mother and child. There is a lot of research on the hormone that is released when we bond, called Oxytocin. This hormone is released when a mother gives birth, when a baby suckles on a mother's breast, when you hold your child, and even when you look into your baby's eyes (the release of this hormone also occurs in fathers...but I will post about this another time!). When oxytocin is released in the mom or child, their stress levels are reduced and the reward pathway of her brain is activated (this gives us the feeling of satisfaction). Oxytocin also enhances social behavior (social attention, prosocial behavior, sensitivity to gaze, and sensitivity to facial expression). When levels of oxytocin are increased infants, they are more socially engaged (they activity seek parental social interaction for soothing). Interestingly, current research is starting to look into administering oxytocin to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to improve social impairments. Disrupted levels of oxytocin in infants are also being discussed in research as possible links to this disorder. 

As parents, we always have something to do. Work, cleaning, laundry, and much more! However, sometimes a child just needs to be with their parent to feel close to them and boost those oxytocin levels, so let's be more aware of the importance of bonding and try to do it as often as we could! :)