Opinion

First contact care: the importance of maternal-infant bonding

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The key to human evolutionary continuity has been for all the tribe to co-operate in looking after dependent offspring.

It was to this end that various neural structures and chemical processes were elaborated into reflexes that ensured sociability and allowed for enhanced communication through language, abstract thought, and imagination. These have come to be known as bonding and culture.

The bonding process arises from reflex neuro-chemical systems that control the physiological processes of the body by way of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system.

The physiological processes are fully functional at birth, but the neuro-chemistry for the socialising aspect of behaviour has to be initiated by close contact with the mother’s nurturing behaviour. This is best achieved with neonatal skin-to-skin touch.

At birth, all the sensations that the baby feels as the mother feeds and handles her offspring are relayed to the physiological monitoring system in the brain, and to specific endorphin release areas in the cortex. These cause pleasurable good feelings that become fixed as social needs for approval and acceptance.

Once imprinted, these needs are the main motivators of unselfish human behaviour. If these social needs are not met, autonomic responses and feelings of distress, anxiety and fear are signalled.

As children grow, they learn what they have to do to be sociable and gain pleasurable feelings in company. Altruism and co-operation take over from ‘survival of the fittest’.

A complex genetic reflex strategy enables us to recognise other members who, through illness, deformity or failure to co-operate, do not contribute to the community’s wellbeing. This engenders stigma and negative feelings. It is one of the marks of civilisation that we can overcome this.

If approval and acceptance are not forthcoming, it is because we are not contributing or co-operating sufficiently, and anxiety is generated.

If this persists, it leads to a pattern of behaviour that is expressed in a manner that is attention-seeking or difficult. This triggers a rejecting reflex response.

The genetic coding for our social behaviour is dependent on every member recognising, knowing and communicating with all the others. There are imprinted, reflex dynamics that drive the organisation of sociable reproductive, nutritive and safety behaviours.

This coding remains effective in those of us who experienced maternal bonding at birth. But with our growing population, societal breakdown and the failure of maternal-infant bonding, we experiment with new patterns of selfish and destructive behaviour.

When social needs are not being met adequately, people find that doing things which are taboo gives a buzz of pleasure. In the absence of communal social controls, aberrant behaviours tend to become addictive. Many socially destructive, self-serving behaviours – notably greed, envy and pride – continue to defy human remedy. They are even endorsed by some sections of society.

It is tempting to suggest that these essentially selfish behaviours are leading to many of the problems that threaten our planet.

felicity-stockwellAbout the author

Felicity Stockwell is a research nurse best known for her seminal 1972 study, The Unpopular Patient. In recent years she has studied the foundation of the ‘social aspects’ of being human and written extensively on the role of maternal-infant bonding. On her website, she describes how to apply this knowledge of human social behaviour to reduce patient anxiety.