Biosocial Foundations of Family Processes

Part of the series National Symposium on Family Issues pp 3-34


How Mothers Are Born: A Psychobiological Analysis of Mothering

  • Viara Mileva-SeitzAffiliated withInstitute of Medical Science (IMS), University of Toronto Email author 
  • , Alison S. FlemingAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Toronto

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A quick scan of how mothers engage with their infants and how they feel about it indicates just how variable mothering is – some mothers talk to their infants, while others sing, stroke and cuddle, and disattend, and, sadly, will neglect or be harsh with them. Although “responsive” maternal behavior enhances the fitness of the mother by ensuring the survival and reproductive efficacy of the offspring, this broad “phenotype” is not a unitary construct, controlled by a single endocrine or brain system, but instead comprises multiple behavioral systems, each with its own neural, endocrine, and behavioral profile. The quality of mothering shown by a new mother depends on her experiences with infants while growing up, her stress level, her affective state, her attention and executive function, how her perceptual systems are tuned, the salience to her of infants and infant-related cues, and how rewarding she finds her interactions with her infant. These behavioral systems are affected by circulating hormones and are mediated by an equally complex set of brain systems with their own neurochemistries and sensitivities. These systems in turn have developed as a function of mothers’ genetics and early experiences in the family of origin. Using both animals and humans as models for one another, this chapter explores this array of interacting factors that contribute to mothers’ responses to their young infants.