BONDING & ATTACHMENT
The bonding and attachment between newborns and their parents will be the most important foundation for the baby’s subsequent development, and the way he is supported in this process is crucial. The explosion of knowledge of early development in the last 3 decades has reported on the critical importance of an emotionally supportive environment at a very young age, and that early childhood experiences shape not only the development of the child’s personality and character, but the structure of the developing brain. Different stimuli and tasks, such as hearing a nursery rhyme, reaching for a toy, help to establish neural networks. Circuits get strengthened through repeated activation . The sheath encasing nerve fibers, myelin, thickens along often used pathways, helping electrical impulses to travel more quickly.
The brain and five senses are all ready and rearing to go. But the equipment alone is not enough. The input of environmental stimulation in all it’s forms is needed to wire itself further. Scientists continue to probe precisely how that development is moulded by the interplay between nature and nurture.
Research conducted in the 1960’s into attachment to mother and father, and especially mother, was closely studied by English psychologist John Bowlby and his student Mary Ainsworth. These two researchers were hugely influenced by observing the consequences for children who were separated from their parents during the second world war.
Anna Freud established the Hampstead War Nurseries to care for children whose parents were unable to care for them. Also, as a consequence of the war, similarly orphaned infants and children in overcrowded institutions were only rarely and briefly touched by staff, without being affectionately held, hugged or stroked. Many of them died.
Ainsworth and her group studied a small group of mothers and infants observing the care giving behaviours when the caregiver was under mild to moderate stress.
Linking these behaviours to the child’s behaviour, they found that caregivers who had been sensitive to their infant’s signals of distress, and who provided responsive, contingent care to the infant, were likely to have infants who displayed proximity-seeking and contact maintaining behaviours, and were calmed by the mothers’ presence.
Caregivers, on the other hand, who often ignored their infant’s signals of distress, or who were unnecessarily intrusive were unlikely to have infants who were securely attached; these attachments were deemed insecure.
Because babies see themselves as the cause of their experiences, the type of care they receive affects the belief they develop about themselves: if the parents are unresponsive, children will see themselves as unlovable and undeserving of comfort (Gethin et al 2011).
After gaining power in Romania in the mid 1960’s, the communist leader NIcolae Ceausescu implemented drastic measures to transform the country from an agricultural society into an industrial one. To increase the population, the regime limited contraception and abortion, and imposed tax on couples older than 25 who were childless. These polices led many parents to abandon their children who were then placed in state run institutions. Thousands of families moved from villages to cities to take jobs at government factories.
It was only after Ceausescu was deposed as recently as 1989 that the outside world saw the horrific conditions in which these children were living.
After birth, the infants were permanently separated from their mothers. The bonding feelings that mother has for her baby after the birth relies on her capacity to identify with the infant, enabling her adaptation to her baby’s absolute dependency on her. The fate of these babies were sealed very early as they were kept for six months in the severely understaffed maternity units in rows of cots where they were left for hours at a time to shift for themselves (Nelson et al 2014).
They fared no better as toddlers. They were also left alone in cribs for hours. Human contact and touch occurred in an impersonal way when a care giver, each responsible for 15 to 20 children, came to feed or bathe them. Stimulation of any sort was erratic or nonexistent at best.
Recent exposes of outcomes for these children in Romania suggest that they were so touch starved that they failed to grow to half their expected height or weight.
As recent studies suggest, they also failed to develop normal cognitive and motor skills. In the first year of life, the infant’s brain grows more than it will again in any one year. By the end of three years of age, the child will have achieved 90% of its brain growth. Virtually full adult brain size.
Dr Paul Schanberg from Duke university shared his findings with mother rats and rat pups, the pups failed to thrive and died if they were deprived of tongue licking touch from their mothers.
Over 30 years ago, Harry Harlow at the university of Wisconsin alerted psychology, and the rest of the sciences, to the importance of what he called contact comfort in his pioneering studies of infant monkeys reared on artificial surrogates. He built one surrogate mother out of terry cloth, and another out of wire mesh. For some of the monkey infants, the terry cloth mother provided milk, and the wire mother did not.
For others the condition was reversed. The monkey infants preferred the cloth mother without the milk instead of the wire mother who provided the milk, but they would lean over the wire to access the milk from the wire monkey who had it.
Infant monkeys who had no real or surrogate mother developed habits of clasping their own bodies. As these deprived monkeys grew older, they failed to develop normal grooming patterns, and had difficulty reproducing.
So, compelling evidence then, that self-absorbed, controlling, abusive and hostile care giving can have long lasting, damaging effects. Babies who experience care that is unresponsive, unpredictable or threatening, can develop attachment problems that significantly slow their physical growth and psychological development.
It is ironic then, that Tiffany Field (2005) in her book on Touch, reveals that at the same time American television viewers were baulking at the sight of the Romanian orphans, American teachers were being directed not to touch children in their care for fear of sexual abuse lawsuits. Despite the many critically important functions of touch, most children in America are socialised at an early age to limit their touching. They are scolded when touching their own body parts, and not to touch another people. By adolescence they are cautious about physical intimacy, and must express themselves by facial expressions and words rather than touch.