The bond between parent and child is one of the strongest connections in nature. Romances come and go, but once you've bonded with your baby you're probably hooked for life.

The love you feel for your child is a basic part of your make-up. Whether you're a mum or a dad, an adoptive parent or a step-parent, you're primed to form strong bonds with your child. And your child is equally ready to connect with you.

Over the years, scientists and child development experts have uncovered fascinating details about the connection between parents and children. Their findings help explain why babies are so addictive and why we deeply love our children when they get older, tantrums, arguments and all. Your bond with your child will change over the years, but its strength never fades.

Pregnancy: love before first sight

Don't be surprised if you find yourself loving your baby before you even meet. Soon-to-be parents are often hit by a potent mix of emotions and anticipation, and these feelings help set the stage for your relationship with your child.

If you're a pregnant mum, powerful hormones lay the groundwork for your connection with your baby. These kick in during pregnancy, growing stronger as the weeks go by.

As your due date nears, your brain starts producing more and more oxytocin, a hormone that literally helps bring out the mother in you. Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin has attracted serious scientific interest.

Animal studies suggest oxytocin plays a huge role in all sorts of social behaviours, from raising babies to forming long-term relationships. Animals that don't produce oxytocin ignore their offspring and find different mates every season. Species that do make oxytocin tend to be more doting parents. They also form more lasting bonds with their mates. Your baby is also developing a bond with you, even in the womb (uterus). Studies show that his heart will beat a little faster at the sound of your voice. It's something that will excite and comfort your child now and for years to come.

If you're a dad, the second parent in a same-sex couple or an adoptive parent, you won't experience the same hormonal boost with your developing child that pregnant mums do. But don't worry, your bond with your child won't suffer.

Babies and older children have the capacity to form tight bonds with any caregiver who responds to their physical and emotional needs. Attachment theory, the guiding psychological principle of human relationships, says that people of all ages become deeply connected with others who provide a sense of security and support. People never outgrow their ability and desire to form these connections, so it's never too late to bond with a child.

You and your baby: addicted to love

As labour progresses, the stream of oxytocin in a mum-to-be's brain and bloodstream becomes a torrent. Among its many other jobs, the hormone causes contractions and gets breastmilk flowing. It works so well that doctors sometimes use a synthetic form of oxytocin to induce labour.

As a brand-new mum, your levels of oxytocin will be extremely high when you finally get to hold your baby. The hormone can help break through the exhaustion and pain of labour to give you a feeling of euphoria and intense love.


New fathers aren't immune to the bewitching nature of babies, or the effects of oxytocin, either. Like mums, dads often get a rush of the love hormone when they see their baby for the first time. That may help explain the unexpected emotions that sometimes overwhelm dads in the maternity unit.

New dads experience other dramatic biological changes, too. Men's testosterone levels tend to plummet for a couple of months after they become dads for the first time.

Even more intriguingly, some men start to produce extra oestrogen, perhaps the clearest sign of the transformative power of fatherhood. According to some experts, oestrogen makes the brain more sensitive to oxytocin, presumably helping dads to become more loving and attentive.

Oxytocin isn't the only love chemical. Dopamine, the main currency of pleasure in the brain, plays an important role in early bonding too, for you and for your baby. As you hold, rock or feed your child, you both get a rush of this "reward" chemical.

While you're savouring the high, dopamine is also helping your baby attach emotionally to you. Researchers learned this by observing baby mice. Those that couldn't sense dopamine didn't especially care whether or not their mother was around. It's the strongest evidence yet that dopamine plays a crucial role in the bonding between mum and baby.

Adoptive parents also enjoy hits of the feel-good chemicals oxytocin and dopamine when they're with their children. And their offspring, like all children with healthy attachments to their caregivers, get regular rushes of dopamine from spending time with their parents.


The feelings of wellbeing produced by dopamine are thought to be similar to the effects of opiate drugs. Some would say that the artificial "highs" induced by some drugs mirror those intense feelings that flow between a parent and baby.

One study found that when mums looked at pictures of their own smiling baby, their brain lit up in areas associated with dopamine.

What if we don't bond immediately?

Try not to worry. You're certainly not alone. About 30 per cent of mums don't fall in love with their babies right away. The birth may have been traumatic or not what you and your partner expected. Disappointment, stress, pain or exhaustion can be enough to drown out the strong hormones of love. However in the vast majority of cases, parents still grow attached to their babies in the first few months.

If you can't hold your baby straight away after birth, don't despair. There isn't a magic "window of opportunity" for bonding. Adoptive parents, parents of premature babies, mums recovering from birth complications and others who aren't able to spend time with their babies at first, still have plenty of time to fall in love.

However, if your baby is born prematurely and has to spend a few days or weeks in an incubator, spend as much time with him as possible, as soon as you can. Skin-to-skin contact with a parent, called kangaroo care, is one of the best therapies for premature babies. A dad's touch can be just as calming as a mum's. Attention from dad can have profound, long-lasting benefits. If you have a caesarean section and can't hold your baby straight away, your partner can step in. A study of babies born by caesarean found that skin-to-skin time with dad cut down on crying and encouraged babies to have their first nap in the outside world.

Love develops over time, for you and for your baby. If you're together during your child's first hour of wakefulness, he may look you in the eye and memorise your face, or at least a blurry version of it.

But it won't be until seven months or eight months old that your baby will develop strong emotional attachments to you and other important people in his life.

Your baby will care deeply about the people who hold him when he cries and feed him when he's hungry. He'll miss you when you leave the room, and he'll be happy when you come back. It's not exactly "love" as adults define it, but it's one of the strongest emotions he knows.

Remember, it's impossible to "spoil" a baby with love, attention and affection. When you comfort your child, you're building a foundation of trust and affection that will last a lifetime.

Toddlers: are tantrums a sign of affection?

The bond between you and your child grows stronger in the toddler years, even if he spends much of the time having tantrums. In fact, those fits are a testament to your closeness.

Toddlers are only capable of that meltdown because they feel secure in your love and they love you so much. In other words, your child couldn't be so disappointed or angry unless he trusted you deeply in the first place.

Your toddler has a rich range of emotions. But he still doesn't understand the concept of "love" as you know it. Toddlers often throw the word around loosely. They may say they love you, but they'll also say they love their books or their toys or their third-favourite cereal.

Even so, you don't have to worry about your place in your toddler's universe. He's keenly aware that you're important. When he gets hurt or wants a cuddle, he doesn't run to his toys or the cereal cupboard. He'll want help from the people he trusts most.

Preschoolers and older children: a more refined love

As your child gets older, he'll start keeping more of his emotions hidden, partly because of peer pressure and partly because the toddler method of expressing every passing feeling can be exhausting.

Having said that, some older children are extremely generous with their affection. Even if your child doesn't hug you at every opportunity, the signs of love will still be there. Some children will tell you everything, while others are more likely to keep things inside. But as long as you're there when your child needs you and are ready to listen, love will still flow in two directions.

The needy, clingy love of early childhood is starting to become more rich and complicated. Your child now feels empathy for you and others, and he'll start to love you as a person, not just a caregiver.

As a preschooler, he may enjoy spending a night at granny's house, but it won't be long before he wants to come home. At the same time, he's starting to push for more independence, which means he needs your love and support more than ever. The more security you give your child, the more independent he can become.

Even as your child strives to become his own person, he can't break the bond he has with you. You have a connection that goes back to before he was born, one that's propped up by affection, memories and, yes, hormones.

Watch our short video to see how dads bond with their babies.

Last reviewed: June 2014