Maternal bond

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This article is about the maternal bond. For a definition of the word "maternal", see the Wiktionary entry maternal.
A mother holds up her child.
Mother sea lion and pup.
A mother Yellow-bellied Marmot kissing her pup.

A maternal bond (or motherly bond) is generally the relationship between a mother and her child.

A maternal bond is typically associated with pregnancy and childbirth, but may also occur in cases where the child is unrelated, such as in adoption.

There are thousands of potential factors, both physical and emotional, that can influence the mother-child bonding process. Separation anxiety disorder is a condition in which a child becomes fearful and nervous when away from home or separated from a loved one—usually a parent or other caregiver—to whom the child is attached. New mothers do not always experience instant love toward their child, but by spending time with and caring about the child, the love and bond between the mother and her child typically strengthens. Maternal bonding is a gradual unfolding experience that can take hours, days, weeks, or even months to develop.[1]


The maternal bond between a human female and her biological child usually begins to develop during pregnancy. The pregnant female adapts her lifestyle to suit the needs of the developing infant. Around 18 to 25 weeks into pregnancy the mother begins to feel the fetus moving, which can enhance bonding, as can seeing her baby during an ultrasound scan.

Some believe that the developing fetus hears the mother's heartbeat and voice and might 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]

Mothers who did not want the pregnancy typically have a lower quality relationship with the child.[3] They are also more likely to suffer from post-partum depression or other mental health problems, and less likely to breast-feed the infant.[3]


The process of childbirth can strengthen this bond, though that is not always the case, as every birth and every mother is unique. Factors that might stress rather than strengthen the bond include a traumatic birth, the pregnant woman's mother's parenting style, experienced stress, social support, and the influence of a spouse or partner.

The emotional bonding theory first appeared in the mid-1970s, and, by the 1980s bonding had become an accepted maternity term, after which the process became analysed and scrutinised to the point of creating another term - poor bonding.[citation needed]


Production of oxytocin during childbirth and lactation increases parasympathetic activity, thus reducing anxiety and theoretically fostering bonding, so it is generally understood that maternal oxytocin circulation can predispose women to form bonds and show bonding behavior.[citation needed]

Breastfeeding is also strongly believed to foster the early post-partum maternal bond, via touch, response, and mutual gazing.[4]

Moral side effects of oxytocin[edit]

A carefully controlled study exploring the biological roots of immoral behavior demonstrated 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. According to the lead author, the study shows that oxytocin leads people to bend the rules for people they care about.[5]

Early Year's maternal separation anxiety[edit]

As children develop they learn independence. Inevitably, children who have rarely been separated from their mother as primary carer will become anxious when separated for extended periods. This is most commonly experienced when the child starts to attend kindergarten or primary school. This is normal, and every child suffers to some extent as they both enter the strange, new, environment of pre-school and they have to say goodbye to their mother. Later in life, this anxiety can reoccur if mothers have to leave their family unit to work. In both of these examples, 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. Two colour picture books have been written for children (3-7) that have received global recognition as useful in positive priming for parental separation. My Daddy's Going Away and Mummy's Home! (by Christopher MacGregor and Emma Yarlett) tell the story of preparation, separation and return using little green aliens and rhythmic verse. Both books are based on the Emotional Cycle of Deployment and MacGregor's website explains how the books can act as comforting bedtime or classroom stories and as catalysts for discussion at every level.

See also[edit]


  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. Which cites:
    • Logan C, Holcombe E, Manlove J et al. (2007 May [cited 2009 Mar 3]). "The consequences of unintended childbearing: A white paper". Washington: Child Trends, Inc.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
    • Cheng D, Schwarz E, Douglas E et al. (March 2009). "Unintended pregnancy and associated maternal preconception, prenatal and postpartum behaviors". Contraception 79 (3): 194-8. doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2008.09.009. PMID 19185672. 
    • Kost K, Landry D, Darroch J. (Mar–Apr 1998). "Predicting maternal behaviors during pregnancy: Does intention status matter?". Fam Plann Perspectives 30 (2): 79-88. 
    • D’Angelo, D, Colley Gilbert B, Rochat R et al. (Sep–Oct 2004). "Differences between mistimed and unwanted pregnancies among women who have live births.". Perspect Sex Reprod Health 36 (5): 192-7.   
  4. ^ Else-Quest, NM; Hyde JS; Clark, R (2003-10-01). "Breastfeeding, bonding, and the mother-infant relationship". Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  5. ^ Shalvia, C. K. W.; De Dreu. "Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 (15): 5503–5507. doi:10.1073/pnas.1400724111. Lay summaryBBC News (2 April 2014).