What a Little Love Means to a Little One

If a failed relationship is detected, especially when the infant is six months old or younger, the chances of helping the parent and the child form a strong bond is greatly improved, the study notes. The fact that damage can begin that young should be sobering to parents, but as is so often the case, the parents most in need of help are often the least likely to seek it.

One powerful factor, of course, is poverty. Boys growing up in poverty, for instance, are more than twice as likely to have behavioral problems in school if they did not have a strong bond with a parent, the study says.

Moullin said researchers in one study had observed 2-year-olds over several months and were able to predict which ones would have the most trouble years later in school. And years later, it turned out, they were on the mark most of the time.

Usually, it's the mother who is the central focus of studies like these, probably because mom is the main caregiver, especially in the early years.

But a study at the University of Iowa two years ago concluded that "being attached to dad is just as helpful as being close to mom." That is critical during the first two years of life.

A similar study in 2012 from the Imperial College London found that fathers were especially important in helping the infant avoid behavioral problems later in life. If the father is remote or distracted, the child is more likely to be aggressive.

This is a problem that is not going to go away, and some percentage of parents will never be able to do a decent job because of a wide variety of reasons. But what all these studies show is the importance of those first few months of life, when a tiny baby is sent on a trajectory that will partly determine success at something as simple -- and as critical -- as getting along with others.

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