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Bonding and the brain

A baby is programmed to lock into an intense and passionate engagement with a caregiver. Unlike ducklings, the first person that a baby comes into contact with is not necessarily the individual with whom this bond is formed; otherwise a lot of babies would stay with their midwives. Usually the very best person to form a bond with, at this stage of life, is the mother, but the role can be taken by others. Very soon a list of suitable caregivers can be settled upon.  This may not be possible in some families but for good health and development a baby needs at least one main attachment and one or two backups because it’s very difficult for one person to provide round the clock care for the baby.

If babies had the choice, they would not ask for more than a handful of familiar caregivers and they will usually have an order of preference which often becomes clear in an emergency.  In some cultures, such as the Efe, infants are cared for by being passed around amongst a larger number of adults, and breastfed by several women (Tronick et al 2007), but all these individuals are relatively familiar and constant and the mother is still regarded as preferable when the infant is inconsolable. Such children grow up in a much more sociable and less individualistic society than ours.

A baby will prefer some people to others, particularly when distressed. When the baby is not afraid, it is light, not too noisy, he is not in pain, wet, cold or hungry, then a baby is able to look around and explore, this includes having conversations with other people, being fed and changed by them and so on.  But when a baby is distressed they need the security of familiar sounds, smells, faces and touches.

In some societies, the mother returns to work quite soon after birth and the care of her baby is taken over by people the baby already knows. This will not be the case if the child has to go to nursery school, or if he meets a nanny or childminder for the first time. These new people will have to become - in the baby’s eyes - part of the family before he is going to feel confident about letting this person take exclusive care of him. So, given that the child's choice is the one that really counts, how is this step to be managed?

First, the principal caregiver, usually the mother, needs to get to know the baby. The more they know each other’s steps, the more each member of the household gets his or her rhythm with the child, the clearer it will be when he’s ready to be cared for by somebody else.   Inevitably, the network of carers around the baby is likely to increase over the first few months, and, if this circle expands to include people from outside the family, the more seamless the change will be.