Exploring Mother-Infant Attachment

April 10, 2012


It is impossible to measure a mother’s influence on her baby’s life. And for most mothers, interacting with her smiling baby is an intensely pleasurable and rewarding experience in return.

It is during these repeated moments of 2-way communication that “attachment” is born. Attachment is the formation of enduring bonds, initially between parents and their infants, but ultimately between siblings, peers, romantic partners, spouses and the rest of our social world. The initial attachment bond between mother and infant is believed to be a foundation upon which future relationships are built.

Differing patterns of attachment in infancy reflect a baby’s response to his or her world, whether it be predictable and comforting, or chaotic or dangerous. Infants have an amazing ability to adapt to their caregiving environment, which may be protective in the short term, but may have harmful consequences in the future.

To better understand the mother-child attachment relationship, my colleagues and I asked first-time mothers to view photos of their own babies and other infants while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures blood flow in the brain.

In the photos, the babies were making a wide range of facial expressions from laughter and smiles to neutral expressions and sadness. In an fMRI scan, areas of increased blood flow “light up” showing where brain activity is taking place. During these scans, when mothers saw their own infants’ faces smiling, key areas of the brain associated with reward “lit up”.

Seeing your own baby’s smiling face may be like a “natural high” — with similar brain areas activated as when an addict receives a shot of cocaine! We found that mothers in general responded much more strongly to their own baby’s smiling faces than to those of an unknown child. However, we expected that not every mother would experience this “natural high” while interacting with their baby. For some, we thought, this may be a painful or empty experience, as a result of their own difficult childhood experiences. So, we went on to investigate how a mother's own attachment experience (in relation to her own parents or caregivers) impacted her attachment to her infant. We found that for mothers with a “secure” attachment strategy, their brains “lit up” more when interacting with their babies, and that they also produced more of a hormone called oxytocin.

Compared to mothers with “insecure” attachment, secure mothers also showed higher levels of “reward” brain activity when looking at pictures of their infants, both when the infants were happy and when they were sad, likely due to their higher levels of oxytocin. In contrast, when viewing the face of their sad infant, mothers with “insecure” attachment showed a pattern of brain activity which suggested higher levels of emotional distress and efforts to avoid this distress.

Thus, some mothers may not receive that natural reward response that helps in the bonding process, but instead may feel increased pain or distress.

Join me and Dr. Lucy Puryear, Medical Director for The Women’s Place – Center for Reproductive Psychiatry, on April 11 at 6:30 p.m. at The Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women Conference Center for a free public lecture as we discuss the results of my most recent research and how postpartum depression can impact mother-infant attachment. Visit the link for more information and to register: Attachment, Breastfeeding & Your New Baby.

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