Maternal deprivation

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


It was Dr John Bowlby in Maternal Care and Mental Health (1951)[1] who argued that infants form a special relationship with their mother, which is qualitatively different from the relationship which they form with any other

Mother and child

kind of person. Bowlby described this as the process of 'monotropy'. By a mechanism which he saw as very similar to imprinting, Bowlby considered that the young infant developed a firm attachment to its mother within the first six months of life, and that if this attachment or bond was then broken the infant would suffer serious consequences. "Even good mothering is almost useless if delayed after the age of 2 and a half". From the beginning Bowlby's work assumed a political dimension as his arguments were seized by one group or another to show that either fathers should provide for their

family or that mothers should stay at home to look after their children, so much so that the World Health Organisation felt obliged to publish a rebuttal called 'Deprivation of maternal care. A reassessment of its effects' (1962).[2] Professor Sir Michael Rutter in Maternal Deprivation Reassessed (1972)[3], which New Society described as a, 'classic in the field of child care', showed that children are not invariably so damaged and that, in any event, other people, including their fathers, are also very important to children.

According to Schaffer in 'Social Development' (2000)[4] it seems likely that social convention explains whatever differences are observed amongst parents and that when fathers do assume the principal responsibility for their children such differences disappear. This is borne out by the study by Field (1978)[5] of standardized parent infant interaction. The notion that fathers are necessarily less competent with or less responsive to their children receives no support from physiological measures (Berman, 1980)[6] or research evidence (Parke, 1981)[7].

It was as a result of this body of criticism that Bowlby went on to diffuse the concept of 'Maternal Deprivation' into the attachment theory and it is now generally accepted that either or both parents may be the child's 'primary carer'.

Significant differences between Maternal Deprivation and the Attachment Theory

Adapted from 'Clinical Implications of Attachment Concepts: Retrospect and Prospect' (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Volume. 36 No 4, p551, 1995) by Professor Sir Michael Rutter.

(1) The abandonment of the notion of monotropy. Bowlby's early writings were widely understood to mean that there was a biological need to develop a selective attachment with just one person.

(2) It came to be appreciated that social development was affected by later as well as earlier relationships.

(3) Early accounts emphasized the need for selective attachments to develop during a relatively brief sensitivity period with the implication that even good parenting that is provided after that watershed is too late.

(4) Bowlby drew parallels between the development of attachments and imprinting. It became apparent that there were more differences than similarities and this comparison was dropped later on and is no longer seen as helpful by most writers on attachment.


  1. Bowlby, J (1951) Maternal Care and Mental Health, World Health Organisation WHO
  2. Ainsworth, M (1962 ) Deprivation of maternal care. A reassessment of its effects, World Health Organisation WHO
  3. Rutter (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, Second edition, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
  4. Schaffer (2000) Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell
  5. Field, T (1978) Interaction behaviours of primary versus secondary caretaker fathers, Developmental Psychology, 14, 183-184
  6. Berman, P W (1980) Are women more responsive than men to the young? A review of developmental and situational variables, Psychological Bulletin, 88, 668-695.
  7. Parke (1981) Fathering, Collins; Cambridge, MA Havard University Press