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The Science of Mother Love
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." Says Odent. 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, keep! ing 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.
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