The Power of a Baby's Smile

images (2).jpg

Despite being the second-oldest of eight children, I’m not a kid person. I’ve always had anxiety about babysitting and being around groups of rowdy children causes me to curl up in the fetal position and cry. So, when I got pregnant with my daughter, I had a lot of doubts about my ability to be a mother. I read books, took all the classes and gathered advice, but everyone assured me that once I saw my daughter, “It would just happen.”

I heard parents wax poetic about the magical bond that would form when I first saw my child and I craved that connection. But when my daughter was born and I held her for that first time, the only thing I felt was fear. I was afraid I’d ruin her, make her bathwater too hot or too cold, forget to clean her ears, socially cripple her in high school and then there was the therapy that she would need already for this moment. My mom assured me we’d bond over nursing, but nursing went terribly. I ended up quitting and pumping exclusively. And every night at six, she’d scream for an hour and no one could calm her down except my husband.  It didn’t help that my husband seemed to ease gracefully into his role as a father. He didn’t cry or yell or walk out of the house in frustration. He held her calmly and offered to let me take naps.

My friends who were parents assured me things would get better when she smiled, but as we hobbled toward week six, she wasn’t smiling. The doctor assured me she was fine, but friends and the Internet suggested a slew of disorders and problems, most of them stemming from me. For two weeks, I begged her for a smile. And finally, when she was eight weeks old, she was sitting in the bouncy seat and turned to look at me. “Please smile,” I said for the millionth time. She cooed and gave me a big toothless grin.

That was the moment I felt a bond. Before, I loved her and cared for her, but in that first smile came that pit of the stomach, breathless, gut connection that reassured me that we could do this. That I could do this thing called mothering.

Scientific American recently published an article on the science of baby smiles. A group of mothers were shown pictures of their smiling infants, “The central finding was that seeing the happy face of the mother’s own infant activated all of the key areas in the brain associated with reward processing. These regions include the ventral tegmental area, substantia nigra and the striatum. This finding suggests that for mothers the sight of their smiling baby is a potent reward and represents a uniquely pleasurable experience.”

Of course, any parent can tell you that that first smile (and all subsequent smiles) are rewarding and validating in the lonely, exasperating enterprise of parenting. But what the science reveals is that in addition to giving validation and reward, the smiles of your infant help establish the mother-child bond that motivates maternal care. The article is quick to note that this is not the only way to establish that bond.  They also note “…a human mother’s response to an infant in distress is a good indicator of how responsive she is to other infant cues.”

But it’s clear that the drooly smiles of your baby are a key element in establishing that maternal connection that is key to the survival of our species and the survival of a new mom in those harried, dark days of a newborn’s life.