Maternal bond

A maternal bond is the relationship between a mother and her child. While typically associated with pregnancy and childbirth, a maternal bond may also develop in cases where the child is unrelated, such as an adoption.

A human mother holds up her child.
Mother sea lion and pup.
A mother Yellow-bellied Marmot kissing her pup.

Both physical and emotional factors influence the mother-child bonding process. In separation anxiety disorder a child becomes fearful and nervous when away from a loved one, usually a parent or other caregiver. New mothers do not always experience instant love toward their child. Instead, the bond can strengthen over time, or fail to develop. Bonds can take hours, days, weeks, or months to develop.[1]


The maternal bond between a woman and her biological child usually begins to develop during pregnancy. The pregnant female adapts her lifestyle to suit the needs of the developing infant. At around 18 to 25 weeks, the mother begins to feel the fetus moving. Similar to seeing her child for the first time in an ultrasound scan, this experience typically leads the mother to feel more attached to her child.

The developing fetus has some awareness of the mother's heartbeat and voice and has the ability to respond to touch or movement. By the seventh month of pregnancy, two-thirds of women report a strong maternal bond with their unborn child.[2]

Some mothers who did not want the pregnancy may not have a close relationship with the child.[3] They are more likely to suffer from post-partum depression or other mental health problems and less likely to breast feed.[3]


Childbirth is an experience that can strengthen the mother and child bond. Factors such as a traumatic birth, the mother's childhood, medical stress, lack of support and the influence of a spouse or partner can weaken the bond.

Emotional bonding theory first appeared in the mid-1970s,[4] and by the 1980s had become an accepted phenomenon. Soon, the process became analyzed and scrutinized to the point of creating another term – poor bonding.


Production of oxytocin during childbirth and lactation increases parasympathetic activity. Thus, anxiety is theoretically reduced. Maternal oxytocin circulation is said to predispose women to bond and show bonding behavior,[5][6] although this has been disputed.[7]

Breastfeeding is also strongly believed to foster the bond, via touch, response and mutual gazing.[8]

Moral side effectsEdit

A 2014 study claimed that oxytocin promotes dishonesty when the outcome favors the closely bonded groups to which an individual belongs. A real-world example of this effect can be seen when parents lie about their address to gain admission to better schools for their children.[9]

Maternal separation anxietyEdit

Beginning at 9–10 months of age when infants begin to crawl and then when they begin to walk around 12 months of age, they begin to develop capacities to physically explore the world away from their mother.[10] These capacities bring with them separation anxiety as the infant becomes more vulnerable away from mother. This newly acquired motor development parallels infants' intellectual curiosity, cognitive and language development as they begin to point and name, and jointly attend with mothers to their environment beginning by 9–10 months. Most parents welcome these explorations and this increased independence. However, in the context of maternal depression, trauma or disturbed bonding in her own early life, some mothers have significant difficulty in tolerating the exploration and-or the infant's anxiety.[11]

This anxiety increases when infants and toddlers feel threatened or socially reference their mothers for reassurance. Research claimed out that mothers, for example, with histories of violence-exposure and post-traumatic stress show less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area that helps to temper and contextualize fear responses, and thus are likely unable to extinguish their own fear response upon watching a videotaped mother-toddler separation scene in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner.[12]

Inevitably, children who have rarely been separated from their mother become anxious when separated for extended periods. This is most commonly experienced when starting to attend school. Every child suffers to some extent.[citation needed]

Later in life, this anxiety can reoccur if mothers have to leave their family unit to work. In both cases, the child's anxiety (and that of the parents) can be reduced by priming, i.e. preparing the child for the experience prior to its occurrence and by creating and maintaining dialogue and connection between the absent parent and child during the separation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Winkler, Jiří (2000). "Utváření mateřského pouta v těhotenství" [Development of the maternal bond during pregnancy]. Časopis Lékařů Českých (in Czech). 139 (1): 5–8. PMID 10750284.
  2. ^ Winkler J (2000). "[Development of the maternal bond during pregnancy]". Cas. Lek. Cesk. (in Czech). 139 (1): 5–8. PMID 10750284.
  3. ^ a b "Family Planning – Healthy People 2020". Retrieved 2011-08-18. This reference cites:
  4. ^ Spinner, Miriam R. (November 1978). "Maternal-Infant Bonding". Can Fam Physician. 24: 1151–3. PMC 2379718. PMID 21301556.
  5. ^ Chiras DD (2012). Human Biology (7th ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. 262. ISBN 978-0-7637-8345-7.
  6. ^ Human Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge University Press. 2010. p. 282. ISBN 978-1-139-78900-4.
  7. ^ Fillod, Odile (2014), "Oxytocin as proximal cause of 'maternal instinct': weak science, post-feminism, and the hormones of mystique", in Schmitz, Sigrid; Höppner, Grit (eds.), Gendered neurocultures: feminist and queer perspectives on current brain discourses, challenge GENDER, 2, Wien: Zaglossus, ISBN 9783902902122.
  8. ^ Else-Quest, NM; Hyde JS; Clark, R (2003-10-01). "Breastfeeding, bonding, and the mother-infant relationship". Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  9. ^ Shalvia, S.; De Dreu, C. K. W. (Apr 2014). "Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (15): 5503–5507. Bibcode:2014PNAS..111.5503S. doi:10.1073/pnas.1400724111. PMC 3992689. PMID 24706799.
  10. ^ Schaffer HR (2004). Introducing Child Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-21627-8.
  11. ^ Pelaez M, Virues-Ortega J, Field TM, Amir-Kisei Y, Schnerch G (2013). Social referencing in infants of mothers with symptoms of depression. Infant Behav Dev, 36(4): 548-56. doi : 0.1016/j.infbeh.2013.05.003. Epub 2013 Jun 14.
  12. ^ Schechter DS, Moser DA, Paoloni-Giacobino A, Stenz A, Gex-Fabry M, Aue T, Adouan W, Cordero MI, Suardi F, Manini A, Sancho Rossignol A, Merminod G, Ansermet F, Dayer AG, Rusconi Serpa S (epub May 29, 2015). Methylation of NR3C1 is related to maternal PTSD, parenting stress and maternal medial prefrontal cortical activity in response to child separation among mothers with histories of violence exposure. Frontiers in Psychology.