Meanings of Words, Psychology

On True Love and the Perillous Errors on Maternal Deprivation

maternal deprivation

Beyond Maternal Deprivation Towards Parental Attachment

Maternal deprivation is a term used to describe a situation in which a child does not receive an adequate amount of consistent care as an infant and is believed to be one of the causes of failure to thrive, which is characterized by failure to gain weight and to achieve developmental milestones. The term “maternal deprivation” was coined by John Bowlby, who theorized that infants form one attachment that serves as a secure base from which they explore the world and serves as a model upon which they build all their future relationships.

Contributing Factors

One of the most common factors in cases of maternal deprivation is the age of the parents. Teenagers often lack the knowledge, experience, and emotional maturity required to provide a consistent level of care for infants. Unwanted pregnancies also frequently result in the lack of emotional bonding between parent and child. The absence of one parent places additional stress on the caretaking parent. Other common contributing factors are social and economic. Poverty, low levels of education, mental illness, and the lack of an adequate social support system are all factors that increase the likelihood of maternal deprivation.


The symptoms of maternal deprivation include lack of appropriate hygiene and insufficient weight gain. Physical growth is delayed and sometimes stops altogether. Physical developmental delays are often accompanied by the lack of age-appropriate responses to social interactions, such as smiling and vocal sounds expressing emotions. Children diagnosed with failure to thrive are also easily fatigued and exhibit excessive sleepiness and irritability. Later in childhood, they often have learning disabilities and behavioral problems.


One of the most common criticisms of Bowlby’s theory was that it fails to distinguish between the effects of being separated from an attachment figure and the effects of never having formed a successful attachment. Critics also point out that Bowlby’s own research samples focused on children of a specific background, such as those being raised in institutions, and that his findings were generalized to include all children. In addition, his work was funded by a post-war government concerned with employment for returning veterans whose jobs had been performed by women during the war. Others, including feminists, point out that Bowlby’s theory did not acknowledge the role of the father in the child’s development at all.

Controversies Surrounding Maternal Deprivation Theory

Harry Harlow, whose research with monkeys was instrumental in the formulation of Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory, was harshly criticized for the cruelty of his methodology. Such experiments are being resumed by a Wisconsin University. Dr. Ned Kalen, the chairman of the Psychiatry Department, has sparked a similar debate about whether the potential benefits to humanity justifies the suffering inflicted upon animals in the name of research.

In a video, Michael Rutter , the first professor of child psychiatry in the U.K., expresses disagreement with Bowlby’s assertion that separation from the mother is the primary cause of maternal deprivation syndrome. He, and other experts have argued that while attachments formed in infancy are extremely important to a child’s development, Bowlby’s theories placed unrealistic expectations and responsibility upon mothers. Rather than forming a single all-important attachment to the mother, infants in fact are capable of forming multiple attachments.

Current Research

Despite criticism and controversy surrounding the theory, modern experts agree upon the importance of forming successful attachments in the healthy development of children. However, in light of changing social realities in which mothers play an increasingly larger role in providing financially for their children, more research is being done on the role of fathers in attachment theory. This will perhaps one day result in a the development of a “paternal deprivation theory”. While this field of research is relatively new, there is already some scientific evidence that children who experience paternal deprivation suffer many of the same physical and developmental symptoms.

Current research suggests that just as with mothers, fathers should begin developing attachments with their children as shortly after birth as possible. In one study, it was found that fathers sometimes expressed that mothers exhibited competitive behavior in the parenting arena, which adversely affected their ability to create successful attachments with their children. This phenomenon can be considered an undesirable side effect of centuries of insistence that the mother’s parenting role is far more important than the father’s.

Gender politics has always played, and will continue to play, a role in influencing research agendas as well as in the interpretation of research findings and the social implementation of those findings. As society begins to place a greater value on the importance of the father’s role in healthy child development, research will reflect those changing societal priorities. The more caring adults children are able to form secure, loving attachments with, the more likely they are to become caring, loving adults themselves.

maternal deprivation
Sister Irene at her New York Foundling Hospital in the 1890s
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