Mother and infant

Emotional Connection Theory

By emotional contact, fusion, togetherness

Emotional Connection Theory – what is it?

Emotional Connection theory is an attempt to explain the mother infant bonding process. The authors believe that the mother infant bonding is a learned or conditional response. This learning occurs during the natural process of mother and infant interactions. The mother and newborn develop a connection by touching, looking at each other, using familiar sounds, and speaking. It is an adapted process to have the mother and infant automatically orient and approach to each other. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that the mother and fetus develop this adaptive orientation during a full-term pregnancy. If fact, it was occurs related to premature infants that let to the development of this theor.

Natural experiment of emotional connection

Dr. Welch, who has worked with infants for years, wondered why some mothers and infants did fine after a premature birth while others didn’t fare as well. She observed some mothers did not develop a “bond” with the infant. This tended to manifest in mothers as anxiety because of having a “difficult” infant. The infants would display a non-orienting, avoidant type behavior. The infants would later have less emotional regulation and more difficulty socializing. Dr. Welch developed the Family Nurture Intervention process that can substantially restore the adaptive orienting – approach behavior (the bond). This intervention involves one-hour sessions where the mother and infant interact through smell, touch, and eye contact. Importantly, the mother talks to the infant and expresses her emotions. (Welch, et al. 2019).

Key aspects of emotional connection

This is what Dr. Welch wrote about the mother’s talking to the infant.

  • “The mothers were led by the Nurture Specialist to speak directly to their infants in an emotional manner, including expression of their upset feelings about the early birth, their infant’s fragile condition, and about the hardships posed to the pair by NICU care. They were asked to speak in their native language, the emotional language spoken to them by their own mothers and family, while establishing eye contact.”

In another paper Dr Welch expressed as follows:

  • Crying is one of the deepest, most powerful, and most therapeutic emotions a mother can express to her baby in the NICU…the mother typically feels an emotional connection to her baby, most often for the first time.

Special emphasis on relationships

Another interesting aspect of the author’s work is the special emphasis on reciprocity and relationship. Both the mother and infant become conditioned to each other. They are co-regulating each other at the autonomic nervous system level and at a behavioral level. They both orient to each other and they both approach each other. It becomes so automatic that it appears to be instinctual. But that it can be disrupted and then “repaired” supports the idea that both the mother and infant learn this behavior. They learn a Pavlovian level conditioning and not via a cognitive process, which isn’t possible for the infant.

The first stage of emotional contact

So what does this have to do with Bowen Family Systems Theory? I think it’s interesting in a number of ways. First, the concept of Emotional Connection is similar to Bowen’s concept of emotional contact. The mother is making good emotional contact with the infant. She can express anything that is meaningful and important to her to her child. The expression of any meaningful and important idea to another is a key point in the concept of emotional contact. It would be fascinating to track reactivity in two adults over a period of six weeks og having meaning conversations with each other. (Note – There is no trying to change the other’s thinking. Each is working to be as emotionally non reactive as possible, while simply sharing their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams about whatever is meaningful to them.)

Second, there is a special emphasis on the reciprocity of the relationship interactions. This is not about either the mother or the child. It’s about the relationship process.

Third, this is taking place at the level of physiology. Dr. Bowen would refer to this as the emotional system level.

An adaptive level of fusion

The term fusion often has a negative connotation when one talks about differentiation. Fusion implies that person A is automatically reactive to person B. This automatic reactivity leads to automatic behaviors that may not be thoughtful or effective. But with emotional connection, this automatic response is effective. I believe there that Dr. Bowen referring to fusion as something that represents my lack of differentiation. My reduced ability to think and act for myself, while not impinging on others. My ability to not change my thinking, or my principles, in order to avoid tension or conflict. Or in order to gain approval.

Differentiation is a developmental process, a process of maturation, from being more fused to being far less fused and more differentiated. So fusion, or automatic responsiveness, isn’t all bad. Some aspect is adaptive.

The authors also propose an alternative to attachment theory. I’ll explore that in the next post.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

The following articles inspired this post.

Impacts of Family Nurture Intervention

How babies learn: The autonomic socioemotional reflex

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is a brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.

Infant benefits

Change a preterm brain

By emotional contact, fusion

The Power of Emotional Connection

(Please note: This post could create powerful feelings in some individuals. The research references are listed below and will provide a more complete description of the material. They quite easy to read and understand.)

The Family Nurture Intervention had a positive impact on the development of infants in a control group study. The FNI process, which lasted for six weeks with 36 hours of treatment, resulted in improved brain function, overall health, and development. These improvements persisted through the five years of the research.

The researches report findings in 18 papers but reported that the brain changes were the most significant. Notably, prefrontal brain functioning improves over the six weeks to be comparable to that of a full-term infant. These changes persist and predict function at 18 months. But what is it that facilitates the changes?

Family Nurture Intervention

The intervention includes one-hour sessions where the mother holds and talks to the preterm infant. Skin contact, smells, and tone of voice are an important part of these sessions. This leads to co-regulating each other’s autonomic nervous system. The researchers propose a concept called Calming Cycle Theory to explain this. I’ll review this in the next blog post.

Emotional connection is key

An important aspect of the FNI is the mother fully expressing her emotions to the child. Even those thought to be negative, such as her worries and fears about the premature birth process. This facilitates a cycle of calming that literally programs the nervous systems of both the mother and infant. The researchers reported that the “Crying is one of the deepest, most powerful, and most therapeutic emotions a mother can express to her baby in the NICU. It is common for the mother to hold back crying.” This openness allows the mother to feel more connected to her infant.

In order to measure the quality of the emotional connection, Dr. Welch developed the Welch Emotional Connection Scale (WECS). This instrument measures behaviour (e.g., approach orientation) and physiology (e.g. vagal tone). This allows the tracking of changes over the period of the intervention.

It is the author’s belief, supported by studies, that our biology is designed to have the infant learn the foundation of socio-emotional interactions, such as orienting and co regulation, in the womb. Because the brain is plastic enough, programming the brain of a preterm infant and mother is possible with the right intervention.

What about Bowen theory?

There are several aspects that make this body of work relevant to Bowen Family Systems Theory. First, this is a relationship process. The researchers stress the relationship aspects of the intervention. Second, it shows how sensitive human nervous systems, especially developing ones, are to each other. The sensitive starts in the womb. Third is how repeated interactions with an individual can program automatic responses. Finally, the work shows the importance of openly expressing feelings to another individual.

When do you feel the most connected?

I would propose that one feels the most connected to another person when they are sharing important and meaning experiences. Hopes, dreams, fears, worries. Being about to share them with someone that doesn’t judge or react in a way that impedes the sharing. I think this would be calming. This is what Dr. Bowen described as good emotional contact. The researchers not only found it was calming, but it literally rewired the infant brain.

Dr. Bowen proposed that a measure of being more differentiated is the ability to have good emotional contact with family members. It appears that this process actually starts in the womb, but is something that we need to keep working on to fully mature as individuals.

Regular emotion contact appears to be what the doctor ordered.


Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

This post was inspired by this article:  6 week intervention.

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.