Strong parent-child bonding builds better brains

The evidence is in: children who have a close bond with their parents or primary caregivers are more likely to have improved brain development and be able to thrive than those without such emotional security. Specific policy actions, such as around paid parental-leave entitlements, are therefore critically needed to support parents in caring for children.

These findings are revealed in a new evidence brief Bonding: A brilliant brain builder. The importance of supporting parents to bond with their child from the earliest years, by Dr Felicia Low, a Research Fellow at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

It is based on New Zealand and overseas research showing that people who lacked emotional support as infants are more likely to lead troubled lives. Brain imaging data also graphically illustrate different brain structure and activation in people raised without secure parental relationships, as might result from being neglected or in institutional care.

“People already know that lavishing love on a child is crucial for building a bond but the point here is how that bond helps the child. Specifically, we are making the connection between the strength of attachment between parent and child and how that affects the child’s brain development.

“A child with improved brain development has lifelong benefits compared with one who hasn’t had that depth of interaction with parents or caregivers.”

Dr Low’s finding is explained by how rapidly brain development takes place in the fetus and infants.

In that time, the “scaffolding” is put in place for the brain circuitry critical for developing the ability to pay attention, plan ahead, work towards goals and restrict impulsive behaviour — so-called executive functions.

Having poorer executive functions is a risk factor for hardships throughout life, such as unemployment, poorer health, and poorer relationships with others. This has considerable implications for society.

There are many simple ways that parents and caregivers can help create a strong bond with their child that promotes optimal brain development. For example, after birth, repeated skin-to-skin contact stimulates physiological changes in mother, father  and newborns that help establish bonding, and ongoing affectionate touch promotes secure attachment.

Borrowing a sporting metaphor, “serve and return” interactions — such as the caregiver’s responding to an infant’s vocalising, facial expressions or crying with eye contact, soothing words or a hug — can be shown with imaging techniques to stimulate neural connections in brain regions important for executive functions.

None of this requires purchasing special products; the main requirement is the parent’s time and attention.

Dr Low says society has a responsibility to provide parents and caregivers with the right conditions to nurture newborn bonds.

“It is about the support of the wider family, the community and the whole of society. It involves structural strategies such as improving paid parental-leave entitlements and other supportive workplace policies.”

Parental-leave provisions need to include fathers as well as mothers.

“Present rates of payment mean it’s not sustainable for many families to the take time off that parents need to be with a child in those crucial early years,” Dr Low says.

Mental-health support of expectant and new parents is another area of need, Dr Low says, with nearly half of pregnant women reporting experiencing anxiety or depression.

“That is a lot of women whose babies can be affected. Again, it boils down to structural changes that support women and their partners in improving their mental well-being, so that they have the optimal conditions for bonding with their newborn.

“That child will then have the best chance of thriving later in life.”

The full evidence brief and a one-page summary are available here

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