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I have heard from mothers, both biological and adoptive, about the feeling of deep connection with their infant children through eye contact. The profundity of the eye contact between mother and infant is one reason why adoption agencies prefer that birth mothers not see their child. They know that when the child gazes up into his mother’s eyes, the mother will recognize their bond, and it will be more difficult for her to let go of her child. During the time of my search for my own daughter (who I adopted when she was one week old), I met a woman who had traveled to Romania to find “her” child. She had seen him on a “60 Minutes” television segment about the plight of orphaned children in Romania. She felt this one specific child calling out to her. It took her nine months of living in a foreign land, traveling all over the country from orphanage to orphanage, learning the language, to find this one child whom she had seen for only an instant on her television set. I asked her what about him had inspired her to undertake such a monumental task. She said, without a moment’s hesitation, “It was his eyes.”
In the 1950s, British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott described the process of the mother gazing at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazing back at the mother’s face and “finding himself therein” (an often repeated phrase in psychoanalytic circles). We know from more recent research, however, that the kind of intense gazing that these theories of bonding were developed to explain is limited to mother/daughter interaction. A 1-day-old girl baby will look at her mother’s face. A 1-day-old boy baby, however, prefers to find a mobile in his field of vision. Within the next three months, mutual face gazing between mother and daughter will increase by over 400 percent 1. A daughter will use her mother’s face as a visual mirror in the same way she uses her mother’s voice as an acoustic mirror. The boys, however, in the same three months, will still prefer staring at the mobile 2. This difference is simply a hard-wired fact.
Previously, infant researchers understood the difference to signify that girls were more “needy” of symbiosis than boys. We know now, however, that face-gazing arises not out of greater “neediness” in females, but rather from a skill, interest and motivation for personal contact that is stronger in girls than in boys. Girls look for and want emotional communication. They want it at the age of 1-day-old, and they want it still at the age of 80.
Infants, as well as seeking out their mothers through sight, want to be touched. They are actually born already used to being touched. It is one of the aspects of continuity from pre- to post-natal life. The fetus’ skin is constantly caressed and stroked by the mother’s heartbeat and digestive sounds as well as by the vibrations of her voice. The intense labor contractions that the uterus makes in child-birth give tactile stimulation to the baby’s internal organs, preparing the baby for independent life.
It is documented that parents touch their daughters more frequently than their sons. As well as the female brain being hard-wired from birth for more contact, it seems that mothers and fathers stimulate the brains of their daughters to be receptive to more tactile contact. The female brain, then, becomes wired — from exposure to early stimulation as well as from genetic birthright — to be more relational, more interested in inter-personal connection.
The skin and the brain both develop from the same embryonic tissue. We should think of the skin as an external brain, exquisitely sensitive to stimulation. When we stimulate the skin through touch, we stimulate brain development. In the infant, touch serves the same function as a mother bear’s licking of her cub: it enhances immune function, it enlivens the bodily systems into action. Antibody production is increased, a life-long advantage conferred onto the baby. Too, touching increases the production of the growth hormone, the master hormone that regulates all endocrine functions of the body.
If a mother is separated from her infant for too long, immune system depression occurs 3. When production of the growth hormone is insufficient, all the organs in the body are affected. The infant suffers from a syndrome known as “failure to thrive.” These immune system depressions, and the other accompanying changes, can last throughout a lifetime. Not touching an infant sufficiently is like not feeding the infant enough nourishment: touching is true brain food.
In the 13th century, Roman Emperor Frederich II conducted an experiment 4. He removed babies from their families and gave them over to nurses, who were instructed to take care of their basic needs: feeding them without holding them, bathing them without hugging them. He wanted to learn to learn what language children would speak if not exposed to a native tongue. These children in the experiment never heard speech, never heard a song or lullaby. What Emperor Frederich learned, however, had nothing to do with language. All the babies died.
We saw these same dire consequences in the orphanages of England following World War II. In 1945, while the world was still reeling from the global hate that had been expressed in the massive destruction of two world wars, the charter of the United Nations was signed. In 1950, a group of psychoanalysts was commissioned by the United Nations to study the importance of the symbiotic phase of maternal love. As a result of the research conducted by psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Rene Spitz, we have precise information on the disastrous effects of the total absence of a symbiotic relationship. Their research informed us of a disease that had not yet been given a diagnostic label. The disease — now called marasmus — seemed to be a kind of love sickness, a withering away of the spirit and then the body due to a deprivation of maternal attention.
As a result of this research, we have filmed documentation of the effects of extreme deprivation of mothering. Spitz observed and filmed 34 infants in an orphanage. Although their physical needs were adequately attended to, the children were rarely caressed, played with or exposed to any of the other kinds of mothering attention that loving mothers bestow on their infants. Within three months, the babies had difficulty sleeping, had shrunk and were whimpering and trembling. With a year, 27 of the 34 infants had died.
It is only through this initial symbiosis between mother and infant, through their shared togetherness, that the infant can come to develop a separate self. The mother mirrors auditorially, visually and tactilely for the baby who she is. We know from research that this mirroring takes place in the brain itself — “mirror neurons,” according to researchers Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers. On the level of electrical and chemical activity in the brain, we are all mirrors to each other, copying each other. Between mother and infant, this mirroring (both conscious and deliberate as well as unconscious and chemical) aids the baby in the long procession of psychological events that culminate in the formation of a stable self-identity.
1. Baron-Cohen, Simon. “The Essential Difference: The Truth About The Male And Female Brain”
2. Brizendine, Louann. “The Female Brain”
3. Bowlby, John. “A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development”
4. Haislip, Melody. “The Importance of Touch”