Why Have We Pathologized Mother-Infant Bonding?

Aren't women and babies designed to bond spontaneously?

Posted Apr 15, 2016

Source: Ifness/iStock

The natural parenting triad includes natural childbirth, breastfeeding advocacy and attachment parenting. Yet there is a surprising riddle at the heart of attachment parenting:

The very mothers who insist that childbirth happens naturally worry that mother-infant bonding does NOT happen naturally.

Ironically, given that attachment parenting is promoted as “natural,” the idea that maternal-infant attachment occurs naturally, that mother and child might love each other simply because they belong to each other, is rejected out of hand, Instead, mothers and babies must engage in a series of ritualized behaviors (skin to skin at birth, breastfeeding only, baby wearing) or children may end up “detached.”

Why can childbirth be trusted to happen spontaneously, but bonding be considered a potential tragedy averted only if you do exactly what the attachment parenting experts tell you to do?

As Charlotte Faircloth notes in the essay The Problem of ‘Attachment': the ‘Detached’ Parent in the book Parenting Culture Studies:

It hardly seems controversial to say that, today, we have a cultural concern with how ‘attached’ parents are to their children. Midwives encourage mothers to try ‘skin-to-skin’ contact with their babies to improve ‘bonding’ after childbirth, a wealth of experts advocate ‘natural’ parenting styles which encourage ‘attachment’ with infants…

In past centuries a mother’s love for her child had been romanticized and ascribed to inherent virtue of women; now mother love has been medicalized, requiring participation in rituals prescribed by experts.

Attachment parenting is not based on Attachment Theory, which tells us that the “good enough” mother is all that any child needs. So where did it come from? It certainly did not come from an epidemic of “detached” children. Until recently it was accepted as obvious that children remained unattached only in the most severe cases of abuse and neglect.

It came not from the study of humans, but of non-primate animals. Animals like ducklings had been shown to “imprint” on whatever caretaker they saw first during an “attachment window.” Attachment parenting theorists simply extrapolated, theorizing that infants “bonded” to their mothers during an attachment window around birth.

Faircloth explains:

Initially, the focus was on the critical period immediately after birth, though this later expanded to the period around birth as a whole. The argument was that a child’s first hours, weeks, and months of life had a lasting impact on the entire course of the child’s development. Birth, in particular, was singled out as one of the ‘critical moments’ for bonding to take place. After birth, new mothers were told to look into the eyes of their infant, hold their naked child, preferably with skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeed for optimal bonding…

From the outset, successful bonding thus required both a set of behaviours that maintained proximity with one’s child and an emotional bond …

This belief is the result of the medicalizing and the pathologizing of bonding. It’s rather surprising considering that natural childbirth advocates rail again the medicalizing and pathologizing of birth.

The truth is that bonding is not contingent and WILL happen spontaneously (as any father or adoptive parent could tell you). It does not depend on a formalized set of behaviors; indeed, it has nothing to do with those behaviors at all (as anyone who has adopted a child beyond infancy can tell you).

There’s nothing wrong or harmful about the behaviors prescribed by attachment parenting gurus, if (and it’s a big “if’) that’s what works best for you, your child and your family. But they are not in any way required for bonding. Bonding happens spontaneously when you put a mother and her child together. It does not depend on specific rituals; it arises from mutual love and need.

Virtually all children will bond to their mothers in the absence of abuse or neglect. Sadly, attachment parenting advocates have medicalized and pathologized bonding. They promote a fear based view of bonding, hinting at dire consequences if you don’t follow their advice. And that leads to a lot of guilt—entirely unnecessary—on the part of mothers who did not or could not follow attachment parenting prescriptions.