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.
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]
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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.
→ This post is part of a series on 10 mind-myths:
- Seriously, Would You Admit to Only Using 10% of Your Brain?
- Blind People’s Other Senses Not More Acute
- Why Psychology is Not Just Common Sense
- The Attitude-Behaviour Gap: Why We Say One Thing But Do The Opposite
- Newborns Don’t Bond Immediately with their Mothers
- 50% of College Students Think We See Like Superman, Despite Perception Course
- Two Brains for the Price of One?
- Graphology: Connections Between Handwriting and Personality are Illusory
- The Mind Cannot Beat Cancer
- Is a Bigger Brain Really Better?