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Maternal Affection Provides a Lifetime of Benefits


High levels of maternal affection during early infancy create secure attachments and bonding that will help children cope with life stressors even as adults, suggests new research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The findings of the study are based on 482 people who were part of the US Providence Rhode Island birth cohort of the National Collaborative Perinatal Project in the early 1960’s. Interactions between mothers and infants at the age of 8 months were objectively rated by a psychologist during a routine developmental assessment. At the end of each session, the psychologist rated the mother’s ability to cope with her child’s developmental tests, how she had responded to his or her performance, and the amount of affection and attention she gave.

Most of the mothers (85%) were characterized as having “normal levels of affection.” Six percent had “very high levels of affection” while the remainder were characterized with having a “low level of maternal affection.”

Once the children grew into adults (average age 34), their mental health was assessed using a validated checklist that captured general levels of distress as well as specific elements such as anxiety and hostility. When analyzed, those adults who had mothers who were the most affectionate had the lowest levels of anxiety, hostility, and general distress.

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Lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center Joanna Maselko suspects that the positive association between maternal affection and lowered stress is due to the hormone oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone. Oxytocin is a brain chemical released during breastfeeding and other moments of closeness.

"Oxytocin adds [to] the perception of trust and support, and hence is very helpful in building social bonds," Maselko explains. "It's plausible that close parent-child bonds help support the neural development of the areas of the brain that make and use oxytocin, setting up the child for more effective social interactions and mental health in the future."

Previous research has shown that factors that delay maternal affection in infancy – such as postpartum depression - have profound effects. Babies who do not bond with parents are more likely to suffer from despair as well as failure to thrive. Maternal affection may enable and promote healthy development and the development of social skills that are key to coping with stress, conclude the authors.

Dr. Maselko PhD says that the study makes “a strong case for policies that would help foster positive interactions between infants and parents, such as paid parental leave.”

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