Disruption of the Mother-Child Bond

Ronald Goldman, PhD

Cross-cultural and animal studies point to the critical importance of the mother-child bond. The first and fundamental intimate relationship is the one between mother and child. Though others may care for the child, the quality of the mother-child relationship cannot be duplicated. The relationship starts during pregnancy when the awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness of the newborn infant develop, and the fetus and mother communicate physiologically and emotionally. It is no accident that newborn infants recognize their mother’s face in a few minutes and prefer her voice and smell, whereas recognition of the father and others comes later.

The emotional bond connecting the infant and mother is called attachment. The importance of attachment has been well established in the literature for decades thanks to psychiatrist John Bowlby. A strong bond between mother and infant contributes to the child’s mental and social development. The infant-mother relationship is a model for infant-peer relationships. In addition, research demonstrates that securely attached infants are more curious and sociable with peers at two, three, and five years of age. The child’s self-confidence and empathy are also connected with the quality of the relationship with the mother. The main conclusion is that the mother-infant relationship provides a biological and emotional foundation for future relationships.

Many factors can disrupt the mother-child bond. It can disrupted by the mother not wanting the birth. How many births are unwanted in this country: about three out of eight. The bond can also disrupted by the infant being separated from the mother, unmet biological and psychological needs, maltreatment, and trauma. The behavioral and physiological responses of human infants to separation from their mothers are similar to the responses of monkey infants. Also as observed in animals, early events affecting the mother-child relationship can have long-term consequences on maternal behavior and child development. For example, diminished mother-child contact after birth has associated with differences in maternal behavior toward the infant after one year and differences in how the mother communicates with her child and child speech and language comprehension after five years.

The long-term effects of disrupted mother-infant bonding have not received the widespread attention they deserve. A secure bond is a primary need. Disrupted early bonding can result in various adult emotional and behavioral problems. There may biological and neurological consequences as well. As has been shown with monkeys, experience changes our behavior and our biology.