The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children (2023)

London J Prim Care (Abingdon). 2016; 8(1): 12–14.

Published online 2016 Feb 24. doi:10.1080/17571472.2015.1133012

PMCID: PMC5330336

PMID: 28250823

Robert Winstona and Rebecca Chicotb,*

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Human babies are born very dependent on their parents. They undergo huge brain development, growth and neuron pruning in the first two years of life. The brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver, usually a parent. There is increasing evidence from the fields of development psychology, neurobiology and animal epigenetic studies that neglect, parental inconsistency and a lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems as well as to reduced overall potential and happiness. In this paper, the authors consider the evidence for this claim across several disciplines and conclude that the support of babies and their parents in the first two years of life to be a crucial aim of public health groups in the community.

Keywords: Child development, mental health, parenting, bonding (psychology), neurodevelopmental disorders, epigenomics

Why this matters to me

The evidence on the powerful role of loving nurture in the emotional, social and cognitive development of children is powerful. Parenting is therefore more important than we could ever have imagined. Although I (Robert Winston) have published over 300 papers in medical journals and worked to develop IVF techniques, if I’m really honest, the most important achievement is undoubtedly my own three children. I don’t have any doubt about that. And all of us in different ways are capable of contributing to the next generation both as parents, health care professionals and as a society.

Key messages

Infancy is a crucial time for brain development. It is vital that babies and their parents are supported during this time to promote attachment. Without a good initial bond, children are less likely to grow up to become happy, independent and resilient adults.

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The science of epigenetics

Imagine if the hugs, lullabies and smiles from parents could inoculate babies against heartbreak, adolescent angst and even help them pass their exams decades later. Well, evidence from the new branch of science called epigenetics is reporting that this long-term emotional inoculation might be possible.

The human brain is an amazing organ made up of over 100 billion brain cells that each connect to over 7000 other brain cells.[1] It’s more complicated than a computer, in fact it’s most complicated object in the known universe.

The most important stage for brain development is the beginning of life, starting in the womb and then the first year of life. By the age of three, a child’s brain has reached almost 90% of its adult size.[2] This rapid brain growth and circuitry have been estimated at an astounding rate of 700–1000 synapse connections per second in this period.[3] The experiences a baby has with her caregivers are crucial to this early wiring and pruning and enable millions and millions of new connections in the brain to be made. Repeated interactions and communication lead to pathways being laid down that help memories and relationships form and learning and logic to develop.[4] This means a human baby’s brain is both complicated and vulnerable.[5]

Use it or lose it

If positive experiences do not happen, the pathways needed for normal human experiences may be lost. This is often referred to as the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.[5] Tragic case studies of ‘feral’ children who have survived with minimal human contact illustrate the severe lack of language and emotional development in the absence of love, language and attention. In the same way, even though babies have a deep genetic predisposition to bond to a loving parent, this can be disrupted if a baby’s parents or caregivers are neglectful and inconsistent.

Indeed longitudinal studies have reported that a child’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships throughout life may be significantly impaired by having an insecure attachment to a primary caregiver.[6]

Teicher [7] has reported the following pathology in children who suffered neglect (an extreme form of insecure attachment) in their early years

  • Reduced growth in the left hemisphere which may lead to associated increased depression risk for depression.

  • Increased sensitivity in the limbic system which can lead to anxiety disorders.

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  • Reduced growth in the hippocampus that could contribute to learning and memory impairments.

These findings have been backed up by cases of extreme neglect and outcomes of children raised in Romanian orphanages. Rutter et al. [8] studied the development of children adopted from Romanian orphanages who were adopted into loving families at different ages. When each child was 6years old, the researchers assessed what proportion of these adopted children was functioning ‘normally’. They found that 69% of the children adopted before the age of 6months; 43% of the children adopted between the ages of 7months and 2years and only 22% of the children adopted between the ages of 2years and 3½ years were functioning normally.

The most valuable thing is love

This highlights the importance of supporting parents and babies in their crucial early years. However, parents can worry about things that just aren’t important to their children’s brain development and well-being such as giving them their own room, buying them toys and taking them on expensive holidays. Instead, the most valuable gift that a child can receive is free; it’s simply a parent’s love, time and support. This is no empty sentiment; science is now showing why baby’s brains need love more than anything else.

The new science of epigenetics is discovering more and more how our genes and our brains are affected by the lives we lead. For example, Champagne et al. [9] showed that (related and unrelated) mice put in the care of loving mothers (who are attentive and lick them caringly) grow up to be better mothers themselves when they have pups. This effect is so strong that it can even stretch over two generations, with granddaughter mice being better mothers and be able to cope with stress better too, all because their grandmother took good care of their mother. These long-lasting benefits of good parenting in mice are dependent on chemical changes in the DNA of the mice.

These same staggering effects (called ‘methylation changes’) on the brains of mice have also now been found in humans. Studies on the brains of people who committed suicide and were abused as children show the same sorts of chemical patterns as neglected mice.[10]

Implications for health care

If depriving infants of a loving family environment causes lasting damage to their emotional well-being, their intelligence and their capacity to develop fully, what are the implications for public health in the 21st century? Being a parent has changed radically from the way human beings have had families over the last 50,000years. Expectant parents today have very little practical experience of babies in modern society.

For tens of thousands of years, new parents would have spent many years in extended families learning the skills of parenthood by osmosis from their parents, grandparents, aunts, older siblings, cousins as well as having responsibilities for their own younger brothers and sisters. Today, few parents get this opportunity to be immersed in early family life as extended families. Living in close proximity is largely a thing of the past in the UK.

A first-time pregnant woman today often only has her pregnancy (a mere nine months) to prepare for being a parent. They can therefore be hit hard by the shock of being a new parent and feel very unconfident about how to bond and care for their baby. Post-natal mood disorders are common and a potential barrier to bonding and optimal development of newborns.

A 2012 study by the Essential Parent Company showed that around 80% of new parents felt both anxious and completely unprepared with the practical skills they need to look after their new baby.[11] The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe which is perhaps not surprising when the survey reported a third of UK parents asked had never seen a family member breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a learned skill and without seeing it happening, lots of new mums really struggle to know what to do, and usually leave hospital before their milk has come in and breastfeeding has been established. This can lead to disappointment, sadness and stress for the mum and means that by six weeks of age only 20% of British babies are still being breastfed.

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These vital practical and loving parenting skills are the building blocks of babies’ care and well-being. There are few things, in our mind, that are more important to the future of our society than understanding the importance of a well-attached baby and seeking to support infants and their parents in the community.

Indeed we are in agreement with Dr Jack Shonkoff, the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University [12] and adviser to UNICEF. He argues for a ‘new role for biology’ in early year’s provision and policy in focussing interventions and support for parents’ needs for emotional and practical support as a way in to promoting secure attachment and early resilience in children.

To this end, how can health care professionals help practically in the community?

In the antenatal period, a pregnant woman is very open to new information as she prepares to be a mother. We recommend classes and baby care videos to build practical skills that help mothers to bond with their unborn baby. After birth they can continue this learning through experience – skin-to-skin contact, early breastfeeding, cuddling and carrying the baby. They need to have plenty of time in face-to-face contact to promote non-verbal communication and chatting with the baby.

The ‘Well Baby Clinic’ is a great community space to support new parents and babies. There are so many simple tips that can be shared in their space that can build parents’ confidence and happiness such as encouraging lots of eye contact, lots of cuddling and sharing books (from an early age) as all these activities help to promote bonding. Depressed parents can feel like their baby ‘hates’ them or thinks they are a terrible parent. Again, health care professionals can use this time to reassure parents that babies need very simple interactive things – cuddles, responsiveness, smiling and chatting. When parents understand that their babies are not capable of judging them they can feel reassured and confident, knowing that their baby is totally open to loving them and that s/he prefers their voice and their skin to those of anyone else.

Health care professional can share this basic and reassuring information in everyday, one-to-one conversations e.g. as they weigh babies, and also in simple leaflets and posters that promote a warm and gentle approach to parenting and to themselves.

Disclosure statement

The Essential Parent Company is a small private company. The visual materials we have produced were funded by four ‘angel investors’ who allow us to offer independent, evidence-based advice to parents and health care professionals. We also work with charities and expert organisations to ensure that our videos and articles are independent and evidence based.


We would like to thank our long-term partners UNICEF UK Baby Friendly, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, St John’s Ambulance, The Child Accident Protection Trust as well as the following groups who have used our materials and helped us to reach and support families around the UK; Barnardo’s, Save the Children, NCT and PACT. Finally, we would like to thank colleagues from the Infant Mental Health Foundation for working to educate health care professionals and public health officials on the importance of early attachment relationships in the development and mental health of children and adults.


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  • Essential Parent Co. Survey of parental anxiety’ unpublished manuscript. N = 500 new and expectant parents. 2012
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(Video) InBrief: The Science of Neglect


Why is bonding important in early childhood? ›

Bonding also promotes the development of connections between brain cells that are critical for learning; the growth of your baby's body; and the positive development of your baby's sense of who they are and how they deal with feeling upset. Newborns don't know what they need.

Why is bonding and attachment so important to the developing baby and child? ›

They know that the strong ties between parents and their child provide the baby's first model for intimate relationships and foster a sense of security and positive self-esteem. And parents' responsiveness to an infant's signals can affect the child's social and cognitive development.

Why are early relationships important to later development? ›

Loving, stable and responsive relationships are fundamental to your child's development. Through relationships, children learn how to think, understand, communicate, behave, express emotions and develop social skills.

Why is bonding important? ›

Bonding is essential for normal infant development

When a caregiver consistently responds to an infant's needs, it sets the stage for the growing child to enter healthy relationships with other people throughout life and to appropriately experience and express a full range of emotions.

What is bonding in child development? ›

Bonding is defined in developmental psychology as the emotional connection from parents to their children, in contrast to attachment, which is the emotional connection of the child toward its caregiver.

How is emotional bonding for a child start? ›

Bonding with newborns: why it's important

Bonding also helps your baby grow mentally and physically. For example, repeated human contact like touching, cuddling, talking, singing and gazing into each other's eyes make your newborn's brain release hormones. These hormones help your baby's brain to grow.

How do a baby's early experiences in relationships impact future brain functioning? ›

As the expectations are strengthened by similar experiences being repeated, babies' brains construct perceptions of the social and emotional world in which they live. Those perceptions influence how babies understand their environment, relate to others, and engage in learning.

Is an emotional bond that promotes the protection and survival of children during the years in which they are most vulnerable? ›

attachment that develops between children and adults is an emotional bond that promotes the the protection and survival of children during the years they are most vulnerable. The child's primary attachment figure is the person who is sought out when the child experiences some kind of distress or threat.

How do you support children to build and maintain trusting relationships? ›

To build positive relationships with others, children need to develop 'social competence' and the ability to interact with others with care, empathy and respect. Social competence is the foundation that allows children to understand and self-regulate their own emotions and negotiate their interactions with others.

How do you promote positive relationships in early years? ›

Positive relationships are built through positive relationships in early years settings by being: warm and loving, fostering a sense of belonging. sensitive and responsive to the child's needs, feelings and interests. supportive of the child's own efforts and independence.

Why are the early years important for brain development? ›

Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.

Early experiences affect the quality of that architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.

What is a bond easy definition? ›

What is a bond? In simple terms, a bond is loan from an investor to a borrower such as a company or government. The borrower uses the money to fund its operations, and the investor receives interest on the investment.

What is the meaning of bonding time? ›

/ˈbɒn.dɪŋ/ the process by which a close emotional relationship is developed: Much of the bonding between mother and child takes place in those early weeks.

What is a bonding? ›

Definition of bonding

1 : the formation of a close relationship (as between a mother and child or between a person and an animal) especially through frequent or constant association. 2 : the attaching of a material (such as porcelain) to a tooth surface especially for cosmetic purposes.

What are the impact of secure relationships on a child's emotional well being? ›

Secure relationships give kids a sense of belonging.

As researcher John Bowlby has shown, a secure relationship with the parent sets children up for healthier interactions with other children, better grades, and great self-confidence as they grow and explore the world.

Why is bonding and attachment important? ›

The brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver, usually a parent.

Why is it important for a child to feel safe and secure? ›

When a child feels safe, that child is able to take the risks necessary to be in relationships, to explore, and to try new things. Simply put, feeling safe makes learning possible. Research has shown that children, who feel insecure, play and explore less, and have more difficulty with peer relationships.

How can we strengthen the bonding among family members? ›

Five Steps to Strengthen Family Relationships
  1. Make eating together a habit. Find time to share a meal with your family, no matter how busy you are. ...
  2. Spend quality time. ...
  3. One-on-one time with each family member. ...
  4. Be involved. ...
  5. Share daily expressions of love and support.

What develop a strong bond in a family? ›

Communication is critical to creating and keeping strong family bonds. If you aren't spending time together, talking to each other, discussing important issues, and sharing experiences, your family bond will suffer. This is why family dinners and family meetings can be so effective at building stronger bonds.

What is the importance of family bond and cohesion? ›

Family bond is the same as family cohesion. Where there is sound family cohesion, the rights or privileges of each individual member will be respected and selflessly protected by other members of the family. Every member of the family has the right to family properties such as land and other material things.

What happens when a mother doesn't bond with her child? ›

If bonding between the mother and child does not occur or is poorly established, it is thought to have negative consequences for their relationship. It may also reduce maternal 'feelings', leading to higher levels of maternal irritability and possible rejection and avoidance of the baby (Kinsey & Hupcey, 2013).

How does love and affection affect a child's development? ›

Love and affection are essential to a child's healthy brain development. A child's feelings about themselves, how confident they are and how well they cope with stress, are all affected by the way their parents respond to them.

How is emotional bonding for a child start? ›

Bonding with newborns: why it's important

Bonding also helps your baby grow mentally and physically. For example, repeated human contact like touching, cuddling, talking, singing and gazing into each other's eyes make your newborn's brain release hormones. These hormones help your baby's brain to grow.

How does lack of love affect child development? ›

On the other hand, children who do not have affectionate parents tend to have lower self esteem and to feel more alienated, hostile, aggressive, and anti-social. There have been a number of recent studies that highlight the relationship between parental affection and children's happiness and success.


1. Bruce D. Perry: Social & Emotional Development in Early Childhood [CC]
(Chicago Humanities Festival)
2. Interview with Kathy Kain. Her origin story, a new book & early trauma
(Irene Lyon)
3. Webinar 3: Trauma and Resilience: The Role of Child Care Providers
4. How to Raise Strong, Healthy and Resilient Children with Dr Nicole Beurkens: Ep 55 | Win the Day™
(James Whittaker | Win the Day®)
5. Infant Mental Health: The Science Behind the Importance of "Nurture" (with Dr. Liz Heyne)
(Doctor, Doctor Podcast)
6. We All Have Mental Health
(Anna Freud NCCF)
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