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The Science of Infant Bonding

The Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision is leading many child care experts to expect an increase in some state’s birthrates, and thus, increasing the number of children who will need child care. Our nation’s current child care system is already strained and cannot meet the current demand. A quarter of women go back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. And with few child care providers offering care for infants under six weeks old, how are working families coping? Where will these infants get child care? What is the impact of returning to work so soon on infant bonding and child development?

To answer these questions, the Bipartisan Policy Center sat down with Dr. Walter Gilliam to discuss the science behind infant bonding and the need for policies to support it. Dr. Gilliam is a leading expert on child development and education and was recently named the executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Gilliam was a Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and the Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He is a widely published and cited researcher, author, and speaker with expertise in early childhood care and education programs, school readiness, and mental health supports for young children, among other areas.

The Science Behind Infant Bonding

Relationships between babies and their parents are crucial to child development. Developments in neuroscience suggest that the hormone Oxytocin is a key to infant bonding. When babies are born, mothers experience a surge of oxytocin, which jumpstarts the “drive to cuddle” and care for the baby, says Dr. Gilliam. This surge also occurs in fathers who were present for the birth. Dr. Gilliam notes that “Babies are wired to seek out important adults in their life”, with newborns seeking out their mother’s face and scent. During birth, the brains of parents are rewired to reciprocate. For foster parents, adoptive parents, and other guardians, Oxytocin promotes caregiving behavior and bonding. But current policies make it difficult for parents to spend time with their infants and form these bonds. Our policies run counter to basic human biology.

What Happens When Parents Return to Work?

This science has not reached the public or policymakers, Linda Smith, Director of BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative points out. Dr. Gilliam says, “So often we know what we should do, but we choose to do something else.” Without paid maternal or paternal leave programs, low-income women and families have few options but to return to work soon after birth, limiting potential bonding time. “Clearly, a couple of weeks is not enough time” says Gilliam.

Finding a child care program that accepts infants under six weeks old is exceedingly rare. So, when parents must return to work shortly after birth and child care centers are not an option, infants are often “bounced around” between caretakers, which Gilliam equates to “care homelessness.” This inhibits infants from forming essential bonds with their caretaker. Additionally, high turnover rates among child care workers can also contribute to a lack of a consistent caregiver for infants at a time when consistency is essential for their development.

The Cost of Infant and Toddler Care

When parents can find care for their infants, it is usually costly. Staff-to-child ratios are lower for infants for obvious safety reasons, but this unfortunately drives up the cost of care for infants compared to preschool aged children. Parents shoulder most of this expense. The Department of Labor estimates that the yearly cost of center-based care for infants is $8,310-17,171 per child. The high cost for infants also correlates with lower maternal employment rates.

Some lawmakers have considered increasing ratios to decrease the cost of infant care and increase availability. Dr. Gilliam cautions that the more infants an adult is responsible for “the more [the infant’s] experience suffers.” Increasing ratios is a safety concern and increases stress and burnout for child care workers.

Moving Forward

Current policies do not provide parents enough bonding time after birth. Dr. Gilliam emphasizes the role subsidizing child care and passing a nationwide paid parental leave program can play in improving infant bonding and child development. There is no single solution to solve the infant care crisis. Smith emphasizes that solutions will consist of a combination of paid leave, increased child care funding, and tax policy. Dr. Gilliam reminds us it is easier and less expensive to address the unmet needs of children when they are young, saying “if we can’t do something beneficial and helpful at that age, it is never going to get easier.”

This discussion precedes BPC’s upcoming report addressing the infant and toddler care crisis.

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