Building the unique relationship between mother and child can produce lasting developmental effects.

We know instinctively that the bond between a mother and child is precious and uniquely important. Research shows that a secure mother-child bond in the early years sets the stage for optimal psychological, emotional, mental and even physical development for life.

According to studies, children who have secure attachments to their mothers have better self-esteem and cope with life’s stresses more easily. Physical closeness can even boost your childs immunity and lower the risk of developing certain diseases. Mothers often ask me how to strengthen that crucial bond. Here are my top tips:

Be there as much as possible

The first three or four years of your child’s life in particular are the formative years when your child’s brain is rapidly developing, making connections and forming patterns that will last a lifetime. That doesn’t mean you have to be available 24/7, but rather that you spend as much time as you can with your child so your child knows you are there.

How can you spend time but still get your work done? For both working mothers and stay-at-home moms, make the time to incorporate the child into your world. For instance, let young children play with toys or games while you do other work close by. Take children shopping and have them check off things on your list if they’re old enough. Go for walks in the neighborhood. Bonding with your child is a process, built of everyday moments. The quantity as well as the quality of time spent together is important.

Touch more

Pre-term babies who are gently massaged gain more weight and have shorter hospital stays than babies who do not receive such physical touching. Practice skin-to-skin contact with infants, resting your unclothed baby (except for a diaper) against your bare chest. Called kangaroo care, this contact sends direct signals to the brain through the nervous system. It not only strengthens the mother-child bond, but also calms and stabilizes your baby’s heart rate, improves sleeping and fosters weight gain, according to research studies from Save the Children and The Cochrane Collaboration.

What better time to lightly stroke, cradle and touch your child than when you are breast- or bottle-feeding? Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that fosters connection; breast milk contains optimal nutrients for your child’s development, including antibodies for fighting infection and boosting your baby’s immunity. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of your baby’s life and continuing to breastfeed up to your child’s first birthday, remember that all physical touching nourishes emotional bonding.

Read to your child

Children love to be read to. They love the physical closeness of sitting next to you or being held in your lap. And they love having your full attention in a shared activity. Reading fosters a child’s intellectual and language development. It’s also a comforting ritual that children come to depend on and something they will remember all their lives.

Foster good communication

From nonverbal cues such as the way you gaze into your child’s eyes and the soothing tone of your voice, children pick up on how you communicate to them. Talk to your child as much as you can; ask questions, remember to listen and make positive comments. Make eye contact to let your child know you are present. And finally, saying I love you lets children know they are safe, secure and unconditionally loved.

Ada Anbar, PhD, is an expert in early childhood education and has been an educator for over 40 years. She is the author of The Drama of the Mother-Child Bond: What every Young Woman Should Know About Motherhood, Career and Children, How to Choose a Nursery School, and The Secret of Natural Readers: How Preschool Children Learn to Read.