Maternal-Infant Bonding

Description of Maternal-Infant Bonding

Marshal Klaus, MD, and John Kennell, MD, wrote the book Maternal-Infant Bonding, in 1976, describing the connection between a mother and her child, which originate at birth (or even before) and which is characterized as an intense physical, emotional, spiritual, bond that exists between the two. They describe this bond as a sensitive dance that occurs between them, where each relies on the cues of the other and interacts in an intense intertwined fashion.

When it is there, mothers and children know it; and when it is missing, each knows that something is missing. We have heard mothers say that there has always been something missing about a child--some connection, some feeling, some important thing. They say that they love this one as much as the others, but it is different.

The children say that they have not felt terribly close to their mothers, even though they know they are loved. As adults they say that they have become good friends of their mothers or that they get along quite well now. They have always felt that there was something missing.

These children, who don't bond, have trouble with being at ease with themselves. They are often colicky, hard to please, agitated. Their mothers say that nothing satisfied them. When they get older they frequently get bonded to non-human things: substances, work, hobbies. It is clear that they are looking for the original attachment which they didn't get.

What causes non-bonding?

Klaus and Kennell found that bonding will occur naturally, unless there is something that interferes with bonding. They identified two major bonding "impediments." The first is physical separation at birth or soon after birth. This separation can occur during normal obstetrical procedures, in which the child is shown to the mother and then placed in a nursery. The mother might get to hold the baby several hours after the baby is born. Other scenarios for separation include: when a child is placed in an incubator; when there has been a difficult birth and the child goes to an intensive care nursery; when a mother delivers twins; when there is a C-section; when the mother is anesthetized; or when a child is adopted.

These are situations in which there is a significant separation after birth. There is a lot of research showing that mothers who are separated at birth from their babies have a different response to their children that those who have immediate contact. They tend to nurse for a shorter period of time; they don't look at their children as intensely; they have a lower frustration tolerance; they speak with their children in a more argumentative way; and they don't enjoy their babies as much.

This is all through no fault of their own. It seems to be the result of the lack of immediate contact. In fact, animals that have no contact with their offspring after birth will have trouble with their babies. Several studies have shown that when a baby animal is taken away from its mother after birth, the mother will reject their baby.

A second set of events which can interfere with bonding was discovered by Klaus and Kennell. Bonding can be disrupted when a mother is having an emotion that is so intense that bonding simply can not occur. This is called emotional separation. Grieving is such an emotion. If a mother has lost a loved one within two years of the child's birth, there is a good chance that she will not be able to bond with her child. If her father died before she delivered, she may not bond with her child. If her husband left just before delivering, it's unlikely that she will bond. If she had a miscarriage within two years, and fetal movement was felt, it will be hard for her to bond.

Those two things can inhibit maternal-infant bonding: physical separation and emotional separation. If either of those things occur, there is a reduced likelihood that bonding will occur. Of course, this is not hard and true. We are talking about what typically results in these situations, but there are numerous exceptions.

Therapy for Maternal-Infant Bonding mishaps

Therapists at the Erickson Institute in Santa Rosa and at Russian River Counselors in Monte Rio have been able to fix bonding failures by carefully investigating the events which interfered with bonding at the time of the pregnancy and birth and by changing those events through hypnosis. When the cause of the disruption can be discovered, a mother can get over those events and then can create another birth in which she and her child are connected.

It is therapy that is short and sweet.

It seems to work more often than it doesn't. It doesn't work as well for children who are adolescents--trying to break from their mothers anyway they can. For children who have not yet reached adolescence, the chances are fairly good that they can experience being connected to their mothers, if everyone is in agreement that it's a good idea. In dozens of cases, with a limited amount of therapy, a mother can be connected to her child just as if it happened from the beginning.

We hear mothers say that they now know what it feels like to love this child. They say that the child is now easier to be with. They say that they are much more at ease with the child. It is truly a remarkable change.

We have had considerable results with children with asthma, where there is a clear bonding failure. We clean up the bonding problem with the mother, and the child's breathing improves. We do not know why this happens, but we have seen it over and over. Even without seeing the child, the child improves. We are not sure what this means, but we are sure that it occurs.

The Association of Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) has given us a grant to study this therapy. We are currently enlisting participants for this study, and anyone interested should contact us.

The type of therapy that we use to correct maternal-infant bonding problems is not the only type of therapy that works for this. Several others approaches exist, and bonding is often corrected during the normal course of life. We have heard mothers say that they got bonded to their child when something special happened, such as an intense moment or a sickness or an exceptional time. We know that the easiest time for bonding to occur is right after birth; short of that, it can occur at other times and in many other ways.

For more information about Maternal-Infant Bonding and other pre- and perinatal issue, click on The Association of Pre and Perninatal Psychology and Health.

EMDR and Bonding Repair

EMDR has proven to be successful in working with bonding disruptions.  To read a recently published article about repairing broken bonding using EMDR, click here.

To listen to a program by Dr. Madrid on Maternal-Infant Bonding, check out  It's number 119.