Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain

Posted in: Book Reviews

mattersby Sue Gerhardt



Sue Gerhardt is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working with disturbed or malfunctioning relations between mothers and babies in the Oxford region.

She believes that current research in the areas of neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis and biochemistry can be drawn together to give us a deeper and more accurate understanding of the processes that go towards the emotional and social development of babies into children into adults.

Her emphasis on the importance of the mother wavers occasionally to include fathers or other carers, but most obviously and importantly for our cause, prioritises the mother as the most influential and necessary part of a baby’s life for at least the first two years. This early care forges pathways in the brain which lay patterns for the emotional habits and reactions shaping all our lives.

Reading this book prompts constant looks over your shoulder to your own childhood and even that of your parents, combined with the inevitable guilt at your own parental behaviour as it may impact on your child’s future well-being (and that of your grandchildren too!). But it is by no means a fatalistic book. It does give hope that patterns can be changed with effort and understanding.

The first section looks at the science, recognising current moves towards an holistic approach and drawing together research and theories on the physical development of ‘the most socially influenced creature on earth’. The sections on ‘Building a Brain’ and ‘Corrosive Cortisol’ can be difficult reading in their technicality, but she avoids the trap of using excessive jargon in her clear explanations.

Section two looks at how problems in adulthood might be linked to patterns laid down in babyhood, emotional regulation, and illness. Gerhardt weaves scientific research with personal and other biographical research. We hear of her own relationship with her mother and also of aspects of more famous lives gleaned from biography (for example, Billy Connolly and Dennis Potter).

The third section attempts to rise above the inevitable response of despair and guilt all this information tends to induce. Used to working with mothers and babies facing difficulties, Sue Gerhardt has experience of the improvements that can be made.

Remedying a problem is not ideal – it is surely better that the problem be avoided in the first place. Gerhardt understands that the difficulties of isolation and identity many mothers face every day do not help to create good relationships with their children or a situation in which healthy emotional habits can develop and take root. She makes a plea for a more balanced work/life parent/child equation, placing motherhood in the context of the modern world as opposed to that of an apparently idyllic past which seems to be behind many other political and social studies of and recommendations for successful parenting today.

With 23 pages of bibliography, this is by no means a light read, but if we are to argue for the choice to be full-time mothers, we need serious scientific and professional background to support our case. This book gives us another building brick for that case.

Lyn Greenwood

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