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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Bonding

In my prior blog post, I discussed Life Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships from infancy to middle age for daughters and later years for mothers:  Life Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships. In today's blog post, I'll focus on the early stage of bonding between mothers and daughters.

Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Bonding

Why is Early Bonding Important?
First, let me say that bonding between infants and parents is extremely important for the infant to grow up to be a healthy, well-related adult.

Even though I'm focusing on mothers and daughters in this blog post, it's important to understand that both parents need to bond with their babies, whether the babies are girls or boys. So, even though the focus is on mothers and daughters, it's understood that fathers need to bond with their children as well.

Bonding between mothers and infants is an intense attachment. When bonding is going well, not only is it gratifying to both mother and infant, but the infant begins to learn in her first intense relationship how to relate.

Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Bonding

If the mother is responsive to the baby, all other things being equal, the baby will usually grow up with a sense of security and positive self esteem. How the mother responds to the baby affects the baby's social and cognitive development.

Bonding is a process that takes place over time. It doesn't have to be perfect--it just needs to be good enough.

Often, bonding takes place, without the mother even necessarily being aware of it, through the normal caregiving responses that she performs for the baby if the mother is also emotionally attuned and related to the baby.

An example of this is when a mother is changing a baby's diaper and she's talking lovingly to the baby at the same time. The baby often responds by smiling and cooing, which is gratifying to the mother, who responds even more lovingly to the baby. Under ordinary circumstances, this is a natural part of the mother-infant bonding process.

Babies respond to touching (skin-to-skin contact), which they find soothing. They also respond to their mother's voice and the mother's scent. Eye-to-eye contact, where the mother mirrors the baby's expressions and the baby attempts, even at an early age, to mimic the mother's expressions, is a very important aspect of bonding.

Breast feeding is another bonding experience between the mother and infant, as the infant learns to associate the mother with comfort, warmth, love and sustenance. All of these examples are powerful ways for mothers and infants to bond.

Secure and Insecure Attachment:
Most of the time, bonding is a pleasurable experience for mother and infant, and it tends to go well. But there are times when there are problems with bonding for a variety of reasons: mothers might be suffering with fatigue, depressive disorder, postpartum depression, medical issues or other problems that get in the way of their bonding with their infants.

 If there are problems during birth, babies might need to placed in intensive care. Under those circumstances, some mothers are put off by all of the equipment, and if they don't take the time and effort to bond, there can be serious consequences for the baby as well as their primary and other relationships later on.

In addition, aside from problems that the mother might have, the baby's temprement might affect the bonding process.

Attachment Theory:
In this blog post, there won't be time or space to go into all of the complexities of attachment theory. However, some basic concepts can be helpful in our discussion.

When we refer to attachment, we're referring to the quality of the bond between the infant and the caregiver.

Attachment theory was originally developed by John Bowlby (1907-1990), British psychiatrist, psychologist and psychoanalyst. His work was enhanced by his American student and eventual colleague, Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) who observed mother-infant interactions in her infant research. Through her research, she identified four different types of attachment: secure, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant, and disorganized.

Before going describing the different types of attachment, I want to stress that just because an infant demonstrates a particular type of attachment, which might not be secure attachment, does not mean that this can never change. Scientists have discovered the remarkable plasticity of the brain in terms of people being able to make significant behavioral changes, even in old age.

Based on Ms. Ainsworth's research, secure attachment is optimal. When there is secure attachment, caregivers respond consistently and lovingly to the infants' needs most of the time. Studies have shown that about 65% of infants develop secure attachment.

Avoidant attachment in babies often occurs where the primary caregivers show little or no response to the babies' distress. These caregivers often discourage crying and want their babies to be emotionally "independent" beyond the babies' capacity. Due to these caregivers' lack of responsiveness, these babies often avoid emotional attachments and connections.

When babies show ambivalent/resistant attachment, the primary caregivers are often inconsistent, vacillating between being emotionally responsive and being neglectful or abusive. These babies are often insecure because they cannot rely on their primary caregivers.

Disorganized attachment usually occurs when primary caregivers are too intrusive or abusive with the infant. These infants are traumatized.

Consequences of Secure and Insecure Attachments:
Once again, I want to stress that an insecure attachment does not necessarily become that adult's inevitable destiny. So, what I'm about to say are generalizations about what has been found in research.

When bonding goes fairly well, as it does with 65% of infants, all other things being equal, these infants tend to grow up as secure adults. Of course, there are many other factors to take into account besides attachment, but for the sake of simplicity and brevity, let's just look at attachment and assume that everything else has gone reasonably well for these infants who grow up to be adults.

Generally, these adults, who experience secure attachment with their primary caregivers, tend to be able to trust in their adult relationships. They usually have healthy self esteem; they're empathetic towards others; they feel deserving of love, and they're able to form healthy adult relationships.

Infants who grow up with insecure attachment often have difficulty trusting. Self esteem is often impaired. They might also have a hard time understanding and being empathetic towards others. In addition, they often have difficulties forming healthy adult relationships.

We can already anticipate what the challenges might be in the mother-daughter relationships as well as other adults relationships for daughters who have developed insecure attachments as infants.

Getting Help in Therapy
These problems can be overcome and repaired in psychotherapy. Many people who didn't have secure attachment as infants overcome this problem and are able to form healthy adults relationships. I will explore this as well as the implications for mother-daughter relationships in future blog posts.

About Me
I am a New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist and EMDR therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome problems in mother-daughter relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.