Newborns Don’t Bond Immediately with their Mothers

Mind-myth 5: A misconception often entertained by rookie psychology students is that babies develop a very quick psychological connection to their mothers, perhaps within hours or days of birth.

The reality is, though, that babies don’t have much of a clue what’s going on right after birth. Although mother (and father) are likely to very quickly form close attachments to their offspring, from the baby’s perspective it takes longer, much longer.

In fact it usually takes infants until they’re about 2 or 3 months old before they show a strong preference for a particular caregiver. While a baby is primed for social interaction soon after birth, its abilities are pretty limited. Here’s the timeline (from Simpson, 1999):

  • After 16 hours babies prefer the sound of human language to other noises (at least they start making rhythmic body movements which psychologists assume means they’re excited). But they don’t show any preference for particular voices.
  • After 2 days babies can tell the difference between their mothers’ faces and that of a stranger, but they still appear to show no preference.
  • After 3 days babies clearly prefer human voices, especially their mother’s.
  • After 3-5 weeks babies become especially interested in faces, and particularly in their mother’s eyes.

Overall, though, the preference for the mother (or other caregiver) is usually fairly weak at first. Real communication from the baby’s perspective probably doesn’t begin until they’re about 3 or 4 months old. At around that time they start to initiate social contact with their mothers. Only between about 3 and 7 months of age do babies start to show a strong preference for members of their own family.

Roots of the misconception

This misconception that babies become attached to their mothers very quickly may stem from the study of other animals. Famously ducks and geese will ‘imprint on’ and follow around the first thing they see after they hatch. Konrad Lorenz, a pioneer in ethology (animal psychology) found that newly born geese would imprint on him, then try to follow him everywhere, as though he were their mother.

Babies are much more fickle and probably wouldn’t follow you anywhere, even if they could.

…this so-called critical period turns out not to be that critical at all.The misconception might also stem from a confusion with research from the 1970s that found there was a critical ‘sensitive period’ shortly after birth that was particularly important for bonding between mother and baby. Again, this research refers to the mother’s bonding with the baby and not vica versa. Also, as later researchers have pointed out, this so-called critical period turns out not to be that critical at all.

[Image credit: Tub Gurnard]

Reference

Simpson, J. A. (2002). Attachment theory in modern evolutionary context. In: J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver, (Eds.). Handbook of attachment: theory, research, and clinical applications. The Guilford Press.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 5 March 2008

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