The Science of Mother Love: Is Science Catching
Up to Mother's Wisdom?
By Cori Young
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that
the way babies are cared for by their mothers will determine not
only their emotional development, but the biological development
of the child's brain and central nervous system as well.
The nature of love, and how the capacity to love develops, has become
the subject of scientific study over the last decade. New data is
emerging from a multitude of disciplines including neurology, psychology,
biology, ethology, anthropology and neurocardiology. Something scientific
disciplines find in common when putting love under the microscope
is that in addition to shaping the brains of infants, mother's love
acts as a template for love itself and has far reaching effects
on her child's ability to love throughout life.
To mothers holding their newborn babies it will
come as little surprise that the 'decade of the brain' has lead
science to the wisdom of the mother's heart.
According to Alan Schore, assistant clinical professor
in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA
School of Medicine, a major conclusion of the last decade of developmental
neuroscience research is that the infant brain is designed to be
molded by the environment it encounters.1 In other words, babies
are born with a certain set of genetics, but they must be activated
by early experience and interaction. Schore believes the most crucial
component of these earliest interactions is the primary caregiver
- the mother. "The child's first relationship, the one with
the mother, acts as a template, as it permanently molds the individual's
capacities to enter into all later emotional relationships."
Others agree. The first months of an infant's life constitute what
is known as a critical period - a time when events are imprinted
in the nervous system.
"Hugs and kisses during these critical periods
make those neurons grow and connect properly with other neurons."
Says Dr. Arthur Janov, in his book Biology of Love. "You can
kiss that brain into maturity."
Hormones, The Language of Love
In his beautiful book, The Scientification of Love,
French obstetrician Michel Odent explains how Oxytocin, a hormone
released by the pituitary gland stimulates the release of chemical
messengers in the heart. Oxytocin, which is essential during birth,
stimulating contractions, and during lactation, stimulating the
'milk ejection reflex', is also involved in other 'loving behaviors'.
"It is noticeable that whatever the facet of love we consider,
oxytocin is involved.' Says Odent. "During intercourse both
partners - female and male - release oxytocin." One study even
shows that the simple act of sharing a meal with other people increases
our levels of this 'love hormone'.2
The altruistic oxytocin is part of a complex hormonal
balance. A sudden release of Oxytocin creates an urge toward loving
which can be directed in different ways depending on the presence
of other hormones, which is why there are different types of love.
For example, with a high level of prolactin, a well-known mothering
hormone, the urge to love is directed toward babies.
While Oxytocin is an altruistic hormone and prolactin
a mothering hormone, endorphins represent our 'reward system'. "Each
time we mammals do something that benefits the survival of the species,
we are rewarded by the secretion of these morphine-like substances."
During birth there is also an increase in the level
of endorphins in the fetus so that in the moments following birth
both mother and baby are under the effects of opiates. The role
of these hormones is to encourage dependency, which ensures a strong
attachment between mother and infant. In situations of failed affectional
bonding between mother and baby there will be a deficiency of the
appropriate hormones, which could leave a child susceptible to substance
abuse in later life as the system continually attempts to right
itself.3 You can say no to drugs, but not to neurobiology. Human
brains have evolved from earlier mammals. The first portion of our
brain that evolved on top of its reptilian heritage is the limbic
system, the seat of emotion. It is this portion of the brain that
permits mothers and their babies to bond. Mothers and babies are
hardwired for the experience of togetherness. The habits of breastfeeding,
co-sleeping, and babywearing practiced by the majority of mothers
in non-industrialized cultures, and more and more in our own, facilitate
two of the main components needed for optimal mother/child bonding:
proximity and touch.
PROXIMITY, Between Mammals, the Nature of Love
is Heart to Heart
In many ways it's obvious why a helpless newborn
would require continuous close proximity to a caregiver; they're
helpless and unable to provide for themselves. But science is unveiling
other less obvious benefits of holding baby close. Mother/child
bonding isn't just for brains, but is also an affair of the heart.
In his 1992 work, Evolution's End, Joseph Chilton Pearce describes
the dual role of the heart cell, saying that it not only contracts
and expands rhythmically to pump blood, it communicates with its
fellow cells. "If you isolate a cell from the heart, keep it
alive and examine it through a microscope, you will see it lose
it's synchronous rhythm and begin to fibrillate until it dies. If
you put another isolated heart cell on that microscopic slide it
will also fibrillate . If you move the two cells within a certain
proximity, however , they synchronize and beat in unison."
Perhaps this is why most mothers instinctively place their babies
to their left breast, keeping those hearts in proximity. The heart
produces the hormone, ANF that dramatically affects every major
system of the body. "All evidence indicates that the mother's
developed heart stimulates the newborn heart, thereby activating
a dialogue between the infant's brain-mind and heart." says
Pearce who believes this heart to heart communication activates
intelligences in the mother also. "On holding her infant in
the left-breast position with its corresponding heart contact, a
major block of dormant intelligences is activated in the mother,
causing precise shifts of brain function and permanent behavior
changes." In this beautiful dynamic the infant's system is
activated by being held closely; and this proximity also stimulates
a new intelligence in the mother, which helps her to respond to
and nurture her infant. Pretty nifty plan - and another good reason
to aim for a natural birth. If nature is handing out intelligence
to help us in our role as mothers we want to be awake and alert!
"The easiest and quickest way to induce depression
and alienation in an infant or child is not to touch it, hold it,
or carry it on your body." - James W. Prescott, PhD
Research in neuroscience has shown that touch is
necessary for human development and that a lack of touch damages
not only individuals, but our whole society. Human touch and love
is essential to health. A lack of stimulus and touch very early
on causes the stress hormone, cortisol to be released which creates
a toxic brain environment and can damage certain brain structures.
According to James W. Prescott, PhD, of the Institute of Humanistic
Science, and former research scientist at the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development, sensory deprivation results
in behavioral abnormalities such as depression, impulse dyscontrol,
violence, substance abuse, and in impaired immunological functioning
in mother deprived infants.4 For over a million years babies have
enjoyed almost constant in-arms contact with their mothers or other
caregivers, usually members of an extended family, receiving constant
touch for the first year or so of life. "In nature's nativity
scene, mother's arms have always been baby's bed, breakfast, transportation,
even entertainment, and, for most of the world's babies, they still
are." says developmental psychologist, Sharon Heller in, The
Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact With Your Baby Leads to Happier,
To babies,touch = love and fully loved babies develop
healthy brains. During the critical period of development following
birth the infant brain is undergoing a massive growth of neural
connections. Synaptic connections in the cortex continue to proliferate
for about two years, when they peak. During this period one of the
most crucial things to survival and healthy development is touch.
All mammal mothers seem to know this instinctively, and, if allowed
to bond successfully with their babies they will provide continuous
Touch deprivation in infant monkeys is so traumatic
their whole system goes haywire, with an increase of stress hormones,
increased heart rate, compromised immune system and sleep disturbances.6
With only 25% of our adult brain size, we are the
least mature at birth of any mammal. Anthropologist, Ashley Montagu
concluded that given our upright position and large brains, human
infants are born prematurely while our heads can still fit through
the birth canal, and that brain development must therefore extend
into postnatal life. He believed the human gestation period to actually
be eighteen months long - nine in the womb and another nine outside
it, and that touch is absolutely vital to this time of "exterogestation."7
Newborns are born expecting to be held, handled,
cuddled, rubbed, kissed, and maybe even licked! All mammals lick
their newborns vigorously, off and on, during the first hours and
days after birth in order to activate their sensory nerve endings,
which are involved in motor movements, spatial, and visual orientation.
These nerve endings cannot be activated until after birth due to
the insulation of the watery womb environment and the coating of
vernix casseus on the baby's skin.
Recall Dr. Janov's claim that you can kiss a brain
into maturity. Janov believes that very early touch is central to
developing a healthy brain. "Irrespective of the neurojuices
involved, it is clear that lack of love changes the chemicals in
the brain and can eventually change the structure of that brain."
BREASTFEEDING: Liquid Love
Breastfeeding neatly brings together nourishment
for baby with the need for closeness shared by mother and child;
and is another crucial way that mother's love helps shape baby's
brain. Research shows that breastmilk is the perfect "brain
food", essential for normal brain development, particularly,
those brain processes associated with depression, violence, and
social and sexual behaviors.8
Mother's milk, a living liquid, contains just the
right amount of fatty acids, lactose, water, and amino acids for
human digestion, brain development, and growth. It also contains
many immunities a baby needs in early life while her own immune
system is maturing. One more instance of mother extending her own
power, (love) to her developing child.
LIMBIC REGULATION: The Loop of
Another key to understanding how a mother's love
shapes the emerging capacities of her infant is what doctors Thomas
Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon , authors of A General Theory
of Love, call limbic regulation; a mutually synchronizing hormonal
exchange between mother and child which serves to regulate vital
Human physiology, they say, does not direct all
of its own functions; it is interdependent. It must be steadied
by the physical presence of another to maintain both physical and
emotional health. "Limbic regulation mandates interdependence
for social mammals of all ages." says Lewis, "But young
mammals are in special need of it's guidance: their neural systems
are not only immature but also growing and changing. One of the
physiologic processes that limbic regulation directs, in other words,
is the development of the brain itself - and that means attachment
determines the ultimate nature of a child's mind." A baby's
physiology is maximally open-loop: without limbic regulation, vital
rhythms collapse posing great danger, even death.
The regulatory information required by infants can
alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune
function, and more. Lewis, et al contend that , the steady piston
of mother's heart along with the regularity of her breathing coordinate
the ebb and flow of an infant's young internal rhythms. They believe
sleep to be an intricate brain rhythm which the neurally immature
infant must first borrow from parents. "Although it sounds
outlandish to some American ears, exposure to parents can keep a
sleeping baby alive."
The Myth of Independence
This interdependence mandated by limbic regulation
is vital during infancy, but it's also something we need throughout
the rest of childhood and on into adulthood. In many ways, humans
cannot be stable on their own-we require others to survive. Recall
that our nervous systems are not self-contained; they link with
those of the people close to us in a silent rhythm that helps regulate
our physiology. This is not a popular notion in a culture that values
independence over interdependence. However, as a society that cherishes
individual freedoms more than any other, we must respect the process
whereby autonomy develops.
Children require ongoing neural synchrony from parents
in order for their natural capacity for self-directedness to emerge.
A mother's love is a continuous shaping force throughout childhood
and requires an adequate stage of dependency. The work of Mary Ainsworth
has shown that maternal responsiveness and close bodily contact
lead to the unfolding of self-reliance and self confidence.9 Because
our culture does not sufficiently value interpersonal relationships,
the mother/child bond is not recognized and supported as it could
The ability of a mother to read the emotional state
of her child is older than our own species, and is essential to
our survival, health and happiness. We are reminded of this each
time a hurt child changes from sad/scared/angry to peaceful in our
loving embrace. Warm human contact generates the internal release
of opiates, making mother's love a powerful anodyne. Even teenagers
who sometimes behave as if they are 'so over' the need for a mother's
affection must be kept in the limbic loop. Children at this age
might be at special risk for falling through the emotional cracks.
If they don't get the emotional regulation that family relationships
are designed to provide, their hungry brains may seek ineffectual
substitutes like drugs and alcohol.
Children left too long under the electronic stewardship
of television, video games, etc., are not receiving the steady limbic
connection with a resonant parent. Without this a child cannot internalize
emotional balance properly.
Our hearts and brains are hardwired for love, and
from infancy to old age our health and happiness depend on receiving
As the research keeps coming in and we gain a gradually
expanding vision of how mother love shapes our species, we see an
obvious need to take steps to protect and provide for the mother/child
bond. We can take heart knowing that all the while we carry in our
genes over a million years of evolutionary refinements equipping
us for our role as mothers. The answers sought by science beat steadily
within our own hearts.
1. Schore, Alan, Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on
Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health,
2.Verbalis, J.G., McCann, McHale and Stricker, 'Oxytocin secretion
in response to cholecystoknin and food: differentiation of nausea
from satiety.' Science 1986, 232: 1417-19
3. Prescott, James W., PhD, Breastfeeding: Brain Nutrients in Brain
Development For Human Love and Peace, From Touch The Future Newsletter,
Spring 1997 http://www.violence.de/prescott/ttf/article.html
4. Prescott, James W., PhD, The Origins of Human Love and Violence,
From Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal, Volume 10, #3: Spring
5. Henry Holt, 1997
6. Prescott, James W. , Ph.D , Rock A Bye Baby, Time Life Documentary,
1970, Executive Producer: Lothar Wolff, Scientific Consultant. (last
7. Montagu, Ashley Touching : The Human Significance of the Skin,
8. Prescott, James W., PhD, Breastfeeding: Brain Nutrients in Brain
Development For Human Love and Peace, From Touch The Future Newsletter,
Spring 1997 http://www.violence.de/prescott/ttf/article.html
9. Ainsworth, M.D.S., "Attachments Across the Life Span."
Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 61, 1985
Carmichael, M.S., Warburton, V.L., Dixen, J., and
Davidson, J.M. (1994). Relationships among cardiovascular, muscular,
and oxytocin responses during human sexual activity. Archives of
Sexual Behavior. Feb. 23(1):59-79.
Carter, C.S., Willams, J.R., Witt, D.M., Insel,
T;;.R. (1992). Oxytocin and social bonding. Annals of the New York
Academy of Sciences. Jun 12. 652:204-211.
Castrogiovanni, P., Capone, M.R., Maremmani, I.
and Marazziti, D. (1994). Platelet serotonergic markers and aggressive
behaviour in healthy subjects. Neuropsychobiology. 29(3):105-107.
Cook, P.S. (1996). Early Child Care: Infants &
Nations At Risk. News Weekly Books Melbourne
Fazzolari-Nesci, A., Domianello, D., Sotera, V.
and Raiha, N.C. (1992). Tryptophan fortification of adapted formula
increaes plasma tryptophan concentrations to levels not different
from those found in breast-fed infants. J. Pediatric Gastroenterology
and Nutrition. May. 14(4): 456-459.
Ferris, C.F., Foote, K.B., Melster, H.M., Plenby,
M.G., Smith, K.L., Insel, T.R. (1992). Oxytocin in the amygdala
facilitates maternal aggression. Annals of the New York Academy
of Sciences. June 12. 652:456-457.
Gutkowska, J., Antunes-Rodrigues, J. and McCann,
S.M.'Atrialnatriuretic peptide in brain and pituitary gland.' Physiological
Review 1997; 77; 2:465-515
Higley, J.D., Suomi, S.J., Linnoila, M. (1990).
Parallels in Aggression and Serotonin: Consideration of Development,
Rearing History, and Sex Differences. In: Violence and Suicidality:
Perspectives In Clinical and Psychobiological Research (Herman van
Praag, Robert Plutchik and Alan Apter, Eds) NY: Brummer/Mazel.
Higley, J.D., Hasert, M.F., Suomi, S.J. and Linnoila,
M. (1991). Nonhuman primate model of alcohol abuse: Effects of early
experience, personality, and stress on alcohol consumption.Proc.
Natl. Acad. Sci. USA V. 88, 7261-7265.
Insel, T.R. (1992). Oxytocin--a nuropeptide for
affiliation: evidence from behavioral, receptor autoradiographic,
and comparative studies. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 17(1):3-35.
Kamimura, S., Eguchi, K., Sekiba, K. (1991). Tryptophan
and its metabolite concentrations in human plasma and breast milk
during the perinatal period. Acta Medica Okayama. April 45(2):101-106.
Lanting, D.I., Fidler, V. Huisman, M., Touwen, B.C.,
Boersma, E.R. (1994). Neurological differences between 9-year old
children fed breast-milk or formula-milk as babies. (1994). Lancet.
Nov 12 344(8933):1319-22.
Mahalati, K., Okanoya, K., Witt, D.M., Carter, C.S.
(1991). Oxytocin inhibits male sexual behavior in prairie voles.
Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior. May. 39(1)219-22
Murphy, M.R. Checkley, s.A., Secki, J.R., Lightman,
S.L. (1990). Naloxone inhibits oxytocin release at orgasm in man.
(1990). J. of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Oct. 71(4):1056-1058.
Neuringer, M. (1993). Cerebral cortex docosahexaenoic
acid is lower in formula-fed than in breast-fed infants.Nutrition
Reviews. August 51(8):238-41.
Newman, J. (1995). How Breast Milk Protects Newborns.
Scientific American. December.
Prescott, J.W. (l979): Deprivation of physical affection
as a primary process in the develop- ment of physical violence.
In. Child Abuse and Violence (Gil, D. G., Ed). AMS Press
Prescott, J.W. (1996). The Origins of Human Love
and Violence. Pre- and Perinatal Journal of Psychology. 10 (3):143-188
Prescott, J.W. (2001) America's Lost Dream: Life,
Liberty And the Pursuit of Happiness. The Association for Prenatal
and Perinatal Psychology and Health 10th International Congress:
Birth - The Genesis of Health.
Raine, A., Brennan, P. and Mednick, S.A. (1994).
Birth complication combined with early maternal rejection at Age
1 year predispose to violent crime at age 18 years. Arch. Gen. Psych.
Salk,L., Lipsitt, L.P., Sturner, W.Q., Reilly, B.M.
and Levate, R.HJ. (1985). Relationship of maternal and perinatal
conditions to eventual adolescent suicide. The Lancet. March 15.
Uauy, R. and De Andraca, I. (1995). Human milk and
breast feeding for optimal mental development. J. of Nutrition.
August 125(8 Suppl):2278S-2280S.
Werner, E. and Smith, R.S. (1992). Overcoming the
odds. High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Cornell University
Press. Ithaca and London.
Winslow, J.T. and Insel, T.R. (1991). Social status
in pairs of male squirrel monkeys determines the behavioral response
to central oxytocin administration. J. of Neuroscience. Jul 11(7):2032-2038.
Winslow, J.T., Hastings, N., Carter, C.S., Harbaugh,
C.R., Insel, T.R. (1993). A role for central vasopressin in pair
bonding in monogamous prairie voles. Nature. Oct 7. 365(6446):545-548.
Winslow, J.T., Shapiro, L., Carter, C.S., Insel,
T.R. (1993). Oxytocin and complex social behavior: species comparisons.
Psychopharmacology Bulletin. 29(3):409-414.
Odent, Michele. The Scientification of Love. Free
Association Books/ London/ New York, 1999
Janov, Arthur. The Biology of Love. Prometheus Books,
New York, 2000
Lewis, Thomas, Amini, Fari, & Lannon, Richard.
A General Theory of Love. Random House, New York, 2000
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. The Biology of Transcendence.
Inner Traditions - Bear & Co., 2002
Resources On the Internet:
Alliance For Transforming the Lives of Children:
An interdisciplinary group of experts providing excellent information
and resources for families and communities, as well as current research
in all areas of human development. www.aTLC.org
Touch the Future, A Non-Profit Learning Design Center:
The guidance of Joseph Chilton Pearce is central to this organization
which provides wonderful information on birth, bonding, childhood
development, original play and the brain. In-depth interviews with
a distinguished group of advisors. www.ttfuture.org
Institute of Humanistic Science: James W. Prescott,
Ph.D., former health scientist administrator at the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), provides research
pointing to the origins of peace and violence, and a vast amount
of research on brain development. www.violence.de
Dr. Arthur Janov's Primal Center: Introduction to
Janov's work and research, with information about primal therapy.
Cori Young has been researching human development
for nearly a decade, and is currently working on a book about birth
and bonding. She lives on an island in Puget Sound with her husband,
Seth, and two daughters, Cedar & Lily.
This article, reprinted here in its entirety with
the permisson of the author, was orginally printed in Mothering