The Nurture Science Program’s work is based on emotional connection.
Emotional connection, a newly identified construct, describes a mutually positive nurturing relationship between parent and child that is crucial to modulating and regulating emotions, learning, and behavior.
Emotional Connection is:
- Mutual, Co-regulated - It begins during pregnancy, between baby and mother. Strong emotional connection forms the basis for all interpersonal relationships with family, teachers, and friends throughout the child’s lifetime. Emotional behavior is co-regulated through emotional connection.
- Autonomic - The body, not just the brain, regulates emotional behavior in the individual. A knot in the stomach when we’re nervous or a rapid heartbeat when we’re afraid are examples of the body’s role in driving emotional behavior.
- Measurable - The Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS) is a validated tool to measure emotional connection. Measuring emotional connection makes it possible to give children and families the support they need to establish and maintain emotional connection and improve or even avoid, emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems.
- Actionable - Emotional connection is fluid; it changes based on life circumstances. It is interrupted by things such as physical separation and stress, but also can be actively supported and repaired to improve emotional, behavioral, and developmental well-being.
The Welch Method helps children and parents re-establish emotional connection. While specific approaches are tailored to particular situations, such as babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the key elements of parent-child interactions that support emotional connection and autonomic co-regulation remain the same:
- Emotional communication - This includes vocal soothing, talking in the mother’s native language, and eye contact. Scent exchange, by exchanging small pieces of cloth or t-shirts that the parent and child have been wearing, supports emotional communication when the child and parent can’t be together.
- Physical closeness - Emotional connection is rooted in the autonomic nervous system, so the entire body is involved in the calming reactions that establish and strengthen emotional connection. Comforting touch and holding a child close, face-to-face, support the calming reflex and facilitate the emotional communication that is necessary for emotional connection.
- Consistent routine - Emotional connection establishes a calming reflex. Setting aside time to re-establish emotional connection at least once a day strengthens this calming reflex. This helps children and parents maintain emotional connection and return to calm more quickly after stresses and upsets.
- Professional support, as needed - While some families establish and maintain strong emotional connection on their own, many can benefit from additional support and guidance to help overcome the stresses and disruptions of daily life. Professional support from a trained Nurture Specialist or physician trained in Nurture Care can help families re-establish emotional connection when they experience difficult circumstances, such as a medical issue that requires infant care in the NICU, or if a child struggles with behavioral, emotional, or developmental challenges.
Early in her career, Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA, discovered that facilitating emotional connection between mother and child resolved many emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems. This powerful phenomenon led Dr. Welch to depart from conventional thinking and develop her own theory on the origins and nature of emotional behavior.
After 25 years of clinical practice in child psychiatry, Dr. Welch turned to basic science and clinical research to investigate biological mechanisms underlying effective parent-child emotional co-regulation. Dr. Welch’s ideas have grown from clinical observations to a fully developed theory rooted in rigorous research and testing. In collaboration with Nurture Science Program Co-Director Dr. Michael Myers and other leaders in developmental psychobiology, molecular and cell biology, psychiatry, psychology, neonatology, and pediatrics, Dr. Welch’s research has helped to identify and explain these mechanisms and suggested that emotional connection is key to healthy child development.
Dr. Welch and Nurture Science Program Associate Director Robert Ludwig developed Calming Cycle Theory, which describes the mechanisms underlying emotional behavior. According to this theory, in utero baby and mother establish an emotional connection and visceral/autonomic co‐regulation. After birth, sensory stimulation (such as touch and scent exchange) and emotional communication (such as eye contact and speaking in the mother’s native language) lead to an autonomic response on sensory contact. The result is that mother and infant mutually calm and are attracted to one another.
The emotional connection can be interrupted or broken by physical separation or emotional stress. If an emotional interruption is not repaired, the autonomic states of infant and mother become dysregulated, which can lead to emotional disconnection and reflexive avoidance. However, the emotional connection between the two can be reestablished through repeated calming sessions that restore the natural emotional connection and co‐regulation of visceral/autonomic states.
Calming Cycle Theory is an evolution from the long-held view that emotional behavior is the result of conscious, self-controlled learning mechanisms in the individual’s central nervous system. According to the new theory, the emotional relationship between mother and infant or child produces two distinct and measurable sub-conscious responses — a physiological reflex and a behavioral reflex. Together, these responses reflect the psychological, physiological, and emotional well-being of the mother and child.