Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

In this essay I intend to analyse the attachment theory of well-known British psychiatrist Dr John Bowlby. I will examine both the primary and secondary research behind the theory and look at some of the arguments against it before going on to explore the impact Bowlby’s research has had on the early years setting. Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London on February 26th 1907 to a fairly upper-middle class family. His parents were of the belief that too much parental affection would in fact spoil a child and therefore spent very little time with him, as little as one hour per day.
His primary care-giver was the family nanny until, when he was four years old, the nanny left. Bowlby later described this as being: “as tragic as the loss of a mother” (www. mentalhelp. net/poc/view_doc. php? type=doc;id=10104;cn=28) He was then sent away to boarding school at the age of seven. It is therefore entirely comprehensible that he became increasingly sensitive to children’s suffering and how it appeared to be connected to their future mental health. Bowlby began his study at Trinity College Cambridge where he studied psychology.
He excelled academically and spent time working with delinquent children. He then went on to study medicine at University College Hospital and enrolled in the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Upon his graduation he began working at Maudesley Hospital as a psychoanalyst. It was while studying medicine that he volunteered in a children’s residential home and began to develop his interest in children who appeared to him to be emotionally disturbed. While working in the residential home he encountered two particular children who intrigued him.

The first of these was a very isolated, affectionless teenager who had no permanent, stable mother figure and the second was a young boy of seven or eight who followed Bowlby around constantly. This led him to speculate that there was a possible link between a child’s mental health problems and their early childhood experiences. It was generally believed by many early theorists that the need to make a bond with a mother or mother substitute was part of our ‘biological inheritance’ and Bowlby’s experience and observations lead him to whole-heartedly agree.
The resulting body of work and research carried out by Bowlby became known as the attachment theory. It was his firm belief that babies are ‘biologically programmed’ to be dependant on their mother. He went so far as to say that there was a ‘critical period’ in a child’s life from birth to age three where the child would be irreparably damaged psychologically by a prolonged absence from the mother. He referred to this absence as ‘maternal deprivation’. He wrote in his book, first published in 1953; Prolonged breaks (in the mother-child relationship) during the first three years of life leave a characteristic impression on the child’s personality. Such children appear emotionally withdrawn and isolated and consequently have no friendships worth the name” (pg 39, Bowlby J. Child Care and the Growth of Love, 1974) While working at the Child Guidance Clinic in London in the 30s and 40s Bowlby began to suspect that not only was a child’s mental health affected by the lack of bond with their mother but there may well be a correlation between delinquent behaviour in children and ‘maternal deprivation’.
This led him to carry out his own study between 1936 and 1939 to try and prove this to be the case. The resulting scientific paper was published in 1946 and entitled 44 Juvenile Thieves. The study involved Bowlby selecting 88 children from the clinic. Of this group of children 44 had been referred to him for theft and 44 had been referred due to emotional problems. Half the children in each group were aged between five and eleven years of age and the other half were between twelve and sixteen. There were thirty-one boys and thirteen girls in the first group and thirty-four boys and ten girls in the second.
The two groups were roughly matched for age and IQ. On arrival at the clinic, each child had their IQ tested by a psychologist and at the same time a parent was interviewed by a social worker to establish and record details of the child’s early life. Bowlby, the psychiatrist at the clinic, then conducted an initial interview with the child and parent. The 3 professionals then met to compare notes. Bowlby then went on to conduct a series of further interviews with the child and/or parent over the next few onths to gather more in-depth information about the history of the child, specifically in their early years. Bowlby considered his findings to be entirely conclusive. Of the 44 thieves Bowlby diagnosed 32% as ‘affectionless psychopaths’. He described this condition as involving a lack of emotional development in the children, leading to a lack of concern for others, a lack of guilt and an inability to form meaningful and/or lasting relationships. Bowlby concluded that this condition was the precise reason why these children were capable of stealing.
His speculation was further strengthened when he discovered that 86% of the children with affectionless psychopathy had experienced a long period of maternal deprivation in the first five years of their lives. They had spent the majority of their early years either in institutions or in hospital with little or no visitation from their parents. Interviews also showed that the majority of these children had been undemonstrative and unresponsive since approximately two years of age. Only 17% of the thieves who were not diagnosed as affectionless psychopaths had experienced maternal deprivation in the early years.
Of the second group not one child proved to be affectionless and only two of them had experienced prolonged maternal separation. Bowlby concluded in the resulting paper; “There is a very strong case indeed for believing that prolonged separation of a child from his mother (or mother substitute) during the first five years of life stands foremost among the causes of delinquent character development” [Bowlby J. pg 41] Many have however argued that Bowlby’s findings were not reliable. It has been suggested that as the study was carried out retrospectively this may have tainted the results.
It is possible that the parents or the children had not recalled events accurately or indeed that they had not responded truthfully to questioning in order to put themselves in a better light. Michael Rutter suggested in 1981 that some of the children in the study had never had a mother figure at all so their delinquency was not due to maternal deprivation but rather to ‘privation’ of any sort of loving attachment. Bowlby looked at research done by others which could support his own findings. He examined both animal studies done by Hinde and Harlow and Lorenz as well as child studies.
He noted in particular the work of Rene Spitz and Katharine Wolf. Spitz and Wolf had observed 123 babies during the first few years of their lives while they were being looked after by their own mothers who were in prison. When the babies were between 6-8 months old their mothers were moved elsewhere within the prison for a period of three months and the babies were cared for by others inmates. Spitz and Wolf noted that the babies lost their appetite, cried more often and failed to thrive during this period of separation. Once the babies were returned to their mothers their behaviour returned to what it had been previous to the separation.
These results certainly appeared to support Bowlby’s hypothesis however others disagreed. In Czechoslovakia in 1972 Koluchova wrote of twin boys who had suffered extreme deprivation. Their mother had died soon after the boys were born and their father struggled to cope on his own. At eleven months of age the boys were taken into care and were considered to be normal, healthy children. A few months later their father remarried and at the age of eighteen months the twins returned to their fathers care. Unfortunately the father worked away from home a great deal and their step-mother treated the boys horribly.
They were beaten, given very little food, made to sleep on a plastic sheet on the floor and sometimes locked away in the cellar. This continued for five and a half years and when the boys were examined at the age of seven they were found to be severely mentally and physically retarded. The twins were hospitalised until they were able to be placed in a special school for mentally disturbed children. They coped well with their schooling and went on to be fostered by a very affectionate, kind lady and in her care they blossomed.
By the age of 15 the boys IQ was normal for their age and their emotional health had improved immensely. Koluchova’s work would appear to demonstrate that it is in fact possible for a child to recover from maternal deprivation in their early years if they are given the love, support and security required later in their childhood and that the results of maternal deprivation need not be permanent. Schaffer and Emerson also disputed Bowlby’s findings and argued that, although an infant needed to form a bond, children could form multiple attachments and they could benefit greatly from the attention of the extended family.
They performed a study in Glasgow in 1964 where they observed 60 children from birth – eighteen months. They met with the mothers once a month and interviewed them to ascertain who the infant was smiling at, who they responded to etc. They found that many of the infants were forming numerous attachments. Twenty of the children studied were not attached to their mothers but to another adult, in some cases the father and in others another family member or even a neighbour. Schaffer states; “There is, we must conclude, nothing to indicate any biological need for an exclusive primary bond” [Davenport G.
C. pg 38] In 1950 the World Health Organisation, who had been following Bowlby’s work closely, commissioned him to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe. While researching the report Bowlby visited several countries and met with many childcare professionals and experts giving him the opportunity to look further into his theory on attachment and the importance of a strong bond between mother and child. His findings supported his thinking entirely and the report was written in six months and published in 1951, entitled Maternal Care and Mental Health.
Bowlby went on to publish further papers and books and his findings and research on attachment and the mother child bond has had a profound impact on childcare in general and that of the early years setting. As Juliet Mickleburgh states in her article Attachment Theory and the Key Person Approach “Bowlby’s research is recognised as the foundation for our understanding of the centrality of making secure attachments in infancy. ” [Juliet Mickleburgh, www. eyfs. info] There have been numerous changes to childcare practice since the 1940s and Bowlby’s influence must be acknowledged.
It can be no coincidence that ‘family allowance’ was introduced in 1946 in the UK, the same year 44 Juvenile Thieves was published, making it affordable for mothers to stay at home with their children. Bowlby made a plea for reforms in the care of young children in hospital and advocated ‘rooming in’ where the baby stays with mother from birth in the maternity ward. Although some children’s hospitals were already extending visitation rights of parents many more followed their lead after the publication of Bowlby’s W. H. O report, ensuring that the mother/child bond remained as strong as possible.
In the early years setting we have witnessed the implementation of the ‘Key Person Approach’ pioneered by Elinor Goldschmied. This approach recognises that an infant will be comforted by a secure relationship with one specific adult. We can now see this in practice in the nursery, each child has their own ‘Key Worker’ who has the duty of monitoring the child’s needs and development. This approach also accepts the need for parents and early years practitioners to work together rather than independently and the key worker regularly liaises with the parents regarding their child.
Parents are also encouraged to become actively involved with the life of the nursery and to work in partnership with the nursery staff to provide their child with a positive, stable and stimulating learning environment. In my view as a parent and an early years practitioner I believe that Bowlby’s research has benefitted both children and families immensely. As a mother I feel that society supports my right to be at home with my children until they go to school and that I am the child’s most vital resource in their early years, not only for nourishment but for their emotional development.
To echo the words of John Major, Bowlby laid the foundation for mothers in the 21st century to go ‘back to basics’. As a practitioner I believe that the implementation of the ‘key person approach’ can be immensely beneficial for both the child and the parent. The child knows that there is always someone there to whom they can turn if necessary and the parent knows that there will always be someone looking out for their child in the setting and that he/she is being given the attention and care of a trained adult in their absence.
I have witnessed first-hand in the nursery how a child who is upset by the departure of their mother can be comforted by the attention of their key worker. I have also observed how the key workers are constantly monitoring the children to pinpoint any needs, to witness the achievement of developmental milestones and to document this for the parents in the form of the Personal Learning Plan, a written and photographic record of the child’s achievements within the setting.
In conclusion, although there have been arguments against Bowlby’s research methods many professionals agreed with his findings regarding the importance of a secure attachment in the early years. These findings, and undoubtedly those of others in the field, have led to positive reforms in childcare. As we progress through the 21st century women are feeling the need, either for financial reasons or the belief that they too have the right to work, I find myself asking will society continue to regard the bond between a mother and her child as paramount or will ‘maternal deprivation’ increase and society as a whole be damaged as a result?
Bibliography www. mentalhelp. net/poc/view_doc. php? type=doc;id=10104;cn=28 Bowlby J. 1953. Child Care and the Growth of Love, 2nd ed, England, Pelican Books Davenport G. C 1994. An Introduction to Child Development, 2nd ed, London, Collins Educational www. eyfs. info/articles/article. php? Attachment-Theory-and-the-Key-Person-Approach-66 .

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