Human babies are born vulnerable and dependent, and require the constant care of their parents. The majority of parents are happy to provide such care, as caring for children is indescribably enjoyable. Our brains are designed to reward our interactions with our children, especially when they are babies, as their scent, sounds, and faces are designed to fill us with joy. During our development, if we receive careful, tender and loving care, it can have a profound impact on our ability to form healthy relationships in the future.
Responsive parenting is essential to a child’s healthy development. When a baby’s cries bring comfort, love, and attention, two major neural networks in the developing brain are stimulated. The first is the complex web of sensory perceptions associated with human interactions: the parent’s face, smile, voice, touch, and smell. The second is the stimulation of neural networks mediating pleasure, which is activated through stress relief. When two patterns of neural activity occur simultaneously and with sufficient repetition, an association is created between them.
This interconnection – the association of pleasure with human interaction – is the important neurobiological “glue” that creates healthy relationships. Attachment is a memory template for relationships between people, and serves as a basic worldview in human relationships. It is profoundly influenced by the type of care we receive during our formative years. Consistent physical attachment and loving bonds are necessary to properly build the systems in the brain linking reward, pleasure, and human relationships. Children who are deprived of this consistency may have difficulty forming healthy attachment relationships in the future.
If a baby’s smiles are ignored, or they are not fed, cared for, or held with tenderness, they may not develop positive associations between human contact and safety, predictability, and pleasure. The attachment between a baby and their parents is deep, and when a child is abandoned by one caregiver to adjust to a new person, it can damage their relationship with that caregiver. The love a baby feels for those who care for them is as deep as the deepest romantic relationship.
Responsive parenting sets the template for healthy relationships and provides the necessary repetition and positive associations between human contact, safety, predictability, and pleasure. The attachment between a baby and their parents is profound, and a lack of consistency in this attachment can result in long-term difficulty forming healthy attachment relationships.