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Babies, Birth, Bonding, and Beyond – What’s Love Got to do With it?

Sally Dear Healy, Ph.D.

What does love have to do with babies, birth, bonding, and the rest of our lives? The answer is, quite a lot. In fact, love has the potential for impacting how we are conceived, how we experience pregnancy and birth, as well our ability to engage in successful relationships. Moreover, our capacity for love, or the lack thereof, can influence our behaviors and relationships for the rest of our lives, including the way we mother/parent. The crucial point is that the capacity for love begins long before the baby is even born, and some argue even prior to conception. What we know for sure is that we need to be paying more attention to ‘what’s love got to do with it?’ In the words of Michel Odent, “At a time when people are focusing on violence and the roots of violence, I am convinced that we can go a step further in our understanding . . .  by turning the question on its head and looking instead at how the capacity of love develops.”[1]  We will begin with a look at romantic love, or what would be the ideal environment for a new soul to be conceived.

In 1999, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco began looking at the biological basis for human attachment and bonding. Their research clearly showed that oxytocin is “associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.”[2]  In addition, they reported that “In humans, oxytocin stimulates milk ejection during lactation, uterine contraction during birth, and is released during sexual orgasm in both men and women.” Last but not least, the research revealed that “Women who were currently involved in a committed relationship experienced greater oxytocin increases in response to positive emotions.” From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense since ideally a woman’s body and mind are stimulated in such a way as to promote a feeling of safety so she can welcome and nurture her child from conception on.

Conscious conception means approaching the moment of life’s beginning with all the attention it deserves. Moreover, the belief that conception can and should be ‘conscious’ is long- and well-supported. In 1986, Jeannine Parvati Baker’s seminal book Conscious Conception became a comprehensive reference that engaged an awareness far beyond the process of biological conception and engaged the belief that conception is far more than ‘just’ a physical act and biological process.[4] As an example, if a woman is open to conceiving, one of the most important things she can do is to open up her heart-uterus connection, again ideally prior to conception.  This is because when a woman becomes pregnant, a channel or line of communication opens between her ‘heart’ and that of her baby.  According to the Chinese, the ‘heart’ is the spirit’s ‘home’ and is associated with the heart center (chakra).  The heart chakra, or Anahata, is the center of love, balance, and connection and is responsible for regulating the energy associated with self-acceptance, self-love, compassion, openness, and unconditional love of others. Babies receive intuited feelings from their mother via this line of communication.

Carista Luminare-Rosen’s research shows that “Prenates can see, hear, feel, remember, taste, and think before birth.”[5] In other words, babies in the womb have the emotional and intuitive capabilities to sense their parents’ love, or lack thereof. Thus, we can argue if the spirit of the baby does not feel that the mother is ‘ready’ for conception then they will not initiate the relationship by coming to that mother at that time. The spirit of the baby may also determine that the womb is not a safe place, at least not at that time. While it may be difficult for mothers/parents to reconcile with the words of James Thurber, “He who hesitates is sometimes saved,” we cannot negate the possibility that babies do in fact make ‘choices’ about when they are conceived and who they chose as their mother.  The good news is that, as Huxley (1987) suggests, “Preparing for the moment of conception offers (women) the opportunity for a renewal of (their) perspective and existence.  Rather than being a random moment, lost in the events of ordinary life, conception can turn into the culmination of in-depth work on (herself) and (her) relationships.[4] The point of this process is to have a sense of self-love and a receptive love environment for the baby. This exploration and awareness can, and often does continue during pregnancy.

Back in 1978, Tarn Taran Kaur Khalsa established Conscious Pregnancy Training for German Kundalini Yoga teachers (Kundalini Yoga is the Yoga of Awareness).  Her intent was to explore a woman’s journey to motherhood including her self-identity, as well as her relationships and building her family culture through the birthing and postpartum process.[7] Since then numerous books and articles have been written about prenatal bonding, however, while the words “bonding,” “attachment,” and “connection” are used widely and interchangeably, few if any actually mention or engage the word love, nor is the word “love” found in the Index.  This was surprising but not unexpected.  More concerning is the fact that a search for “love and pregnancy” focused on topics such as “10 Fun Date Ideas for Pregnant Moms and Partners,” “5 Ways Pregnancy Will Change Your Relationship,” and “15 Things Men Absolutely Love About Pregnant Women,” while others focused on teen pregnancy.[8] What is most important is that mothers and babies feel and experience love during the pregnancy.[9] This will allow babies to receive the message that the uterine environment is both physically and emotionally safe, which in turn prepares them for birth.  Accordingly, Nathanielsz (2001) argues that “The right kind of environment will allow (the woman/mother) to offer the right kinds of messages to (their) child so that, at birth, he is already well along the most healthy developmental path.”[10]

We would hope that the feeling and experience of blissful love is automatically present when a woman gives birth and a new life enters this world, but rarely expand this expectation beyond the birthing woman/couple and their baby to include the love or loving feelings of a care provider toward their patient/client, and even towards themselves.  While some OB’s claim that they “love what they do for a living,” and “treasure the relationships (they are) able to be a part of with each of their patients,” other than few vague references to midwives, I found no mention in the research of a care provider being taught to or purposefully communicating feelings of love towards the woman, her  baby, or the birthing environment, let alone purposely creating a space where this kind of love flourish.  In other words, mothering/parenting should ideally embrace a purposeful conveyance of love and the mindful creation of a space where love can flourish.

What does appropriate care look like in the first few years of life?  Lots and lots of love!  According to Schore (2014), “Optimal attachment scenarios allow for the development of a right-lateralized system of efficient activation and feedback inhibition of the HPA axis and autonomic arousal.”[11] Unfortunately many of today’s parenting advice focuses more on the needs of the parents instead of the needs of the baby/child.  As an example, on the website Love and Logic, in an article titled “End the bedtime Blues” (J. Fay), parents are admonished to “stick to (their) guns” when it comes to putting children to bed.  If the child “resorts” to saying they are frightened, or that there are “monsters in their room,” Fay argues that parents should respond by saying “Well, sweetie, my advice is to make friends with them.  See you in the morning.  I love you,” and walk out the door. Now imagine how this scenario plays out when the infant/child is not developmentally ready for separation.  While the spectrum of research on love and healthy human development is far beyond the scope of this article, what is most important to remember is that oxytocin is produced naturally when we love, are loved, nurture another, give selflessly, or engage in affectionate touch.”  The love invested early on will pay huge dividends later on.

In fact, the impact of oxytocin extends far beyond the time of birth and early parenting.  For example, the article “The role of oxytocin in psychiatric disorders: A review of biological and therapeutic research findings” (Cochran, 2013), looked at oxytocin as “an important regulator of human social behaviors, including social decision making, evaluating and responding to social stimuli, mediating social interactions, and forming social memories.”[12] What this review discovered is that “oxytocin is intricately involved in a broad array of neuropsychiatric functions, and may be a common factor important in multiple psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders.”  More specifically, “while there is less evidence for a clear dysfunction in the oxytocin system in patients with schizophrenia,” some studies suggest that “there may be a dysfunction in oxytocin processing associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and that there may be developmental changes associated with the oxytocin system over the lifespan of individuals with ASD.”  Moreover, with regards to epigenetics, “Even when there is no direct genetic evidence of alterations in oxytocin-related genes, the expression of these genes may be affected by epigenetic modification and provide a different mechanism for oxytocin’s role in the clinical phenotype of ASD.”

Going back to Cochran’s study and the impact of oxytocin as an important regulator of human social behaviors, it is worth noting that Allan N. Schore (2017), looked at the psychoneurobiological mechanisms that underlie the vulnerability of the developing male.  His findings showed that “stress-regulating circuits of the male brain mature more slowly than those of the female in the prenatal perinatal, and postnatal critical period,” “developing males are more vulnerable over a longer period of time to stressors in the social environment (attachment trauma),” and that there is an “increased vulnerability of males to autism, early onset schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorders.”[13] These results are of considerable interest given that in November (2018), the National Survey of Children’s Health updated the CDC figures of 1 in 59 children in the U.S. with a diagnosis of autism[14] to roughly 1 in 40 having a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  It is also notable that autism in boys, reported by the CDC to be 4 times more common than in girls, was updated to reveal that boys were (only) 3.5 times as likely to be diagnosed when compared to girls.[15] Instead of the cultural emphasis of “toughening up” boys by treating them differently than girl babies, literally from birth on, we should instead be taking a more dedicated look at the psychoneurobiological mechanisms that impact development and treat all infants with tender, responsive care so that they can experience secure attachment.  As Shore concludes, “In light of the male infant’s slower brain maturation, the secure mother’s attachment-regulating function as a sensitively responsive, interactive affect regulator of his immature right brain in the first year is essential to optimal male socioemotional development.”

In light of the research on the connection between love, oxytocin expression, as well as  the short- and long-term impacts on infant/human well-being, it is clear that love is  likely to be one of the most crucial elements in the process, beginning with preconception and extending at least through the first few years of an infant/child’s life.  Moreover, we must begin with loving the pregnant and birthing woman, her baby, and her partner – on the birth day, and every day.

[1] Odent, M. (2014). The Scientification of Love.  London: Free Association Books.

[2] Turner, R., Altemus, M., Enos, T., & McGuinness, T. Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 62(2):97-113.

[3] Turner, R., Altemus, M., Enos, T., & McGuinness, T. Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 62(2):97-113.

[4] Parvati Baker, J., Baker, F., & Slayton, T. Conscious Conception: Elemental Journey Through the Labyrinth of Sexuality. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

[5] Luminare-Rose, C. (2000). Parenting Begins Before Conception: A Guide to Preparing Body, Mind, and Spirit for You and Your Future Child.  Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

[6] Huxley, L. (1987). The Child of Your Dreams. Minneapolis, MN: CompCare Publishers.

[7] https://www.tarntarankaur.com/

[8] One notable exception is Elizabeth Nobel’s book Primal Connections: How our Experiences from conception to birth influence our emotions, behavior, and health (1993), which not only mentions love in the Index, it cross-references the listing with “heart.”

[9] One of the songs in the BirthWorks trainings asks, “What can we do to bring her love, on the birth day, and every day?”

[10] Nathanielsz, P. (2001). The Prenatal Prescription. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[11] Schore, A. (2014). Early interpersonal neurobiological assessment of attachment and autistic spectrum disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:1049. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01049

[22] Cochran, D., Fallon, D., Hill, M, and Frazier, J. (2013). The role of oxytocin in psychiatric disorders: A review of biological and therapeutic research findings.  Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 21(5):219-247.

[13] Schore, A. (2017) “All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk. Journal of Infant Mental Health, 38(1):15-52.

[14] Centers for Disease Control (2018). Data and Statistics: Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov

[15] Kogan et al. (2018). The prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder among US Children. Journal of Pediatrics, 142(6).