Babies whose mothers are attentive and caring tend to grow into happy, well-adjusted children. But the psychological benefits of having a doting mother may extend well beyond childhood, a new study suggests. According to the study, which followed nearly 500 infants into their 30s, babies who receive above-average levels of affection and attention from their mothers are less likely than other babies to grow up to be emotionally distressed, anxious, or hostile adults. “Early experience can be a mediating factor on what happens to us as adults, and we need to look at things that we can do to improve parent-child bonding that can then perhaps serve as a protective factor later.”Roughly 30 years later, the babies-turned-adults were interviewed about their levels of emotional distress. The adults whose mothers had displayed “extravagant” or “caressing” affection (the two top ratings) were much less likely than their less-doted-on peers to be anxious. They were also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions, and psychosomatic symptoms. The findings add to a large body of psychological research on mother-child attachment that suggests that healthy bonds between young children and parents are crucial to a child’s emotional development.
Maselko and her colleagues suspect that their findings may be explained in part by the hormone oxytocin, which acts as a brain chemical. Also known as the “bonding hormone” or “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is 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.”
A smaller proportion of mothers with lower socioeconomic status exhibited “extravagant” or “caressing” affection than did better-off mothers, for instance. Although the researchers controlled for socioeconomic status and other characteristics, it’s possible that social and financial difficulties during childhood could play a role in adult emotional distress. “There are so many intervening variables between eight months and 34 years,” Bauer says. “A whole cadre of factors might lead to a more stable environment, a more stable mental health picture, a more stable individual.”