The Mother-Child Bond


By Richard Kieninger


Any reorganization of society which focuses on the needs of women as mothers must involve a re-evaluation of what is important about the mothering role for the community as a whole. Young people growing up should learn that mothers are not second-class citizens, doing a job anyone can do, but individuals who require special skills to perform what is perhaps the most important task for which any human being can prepare themselves, creating the society of the future. The exciting thing about a mother, or a father who is able to be with the children a good deal, is the very close observation of unique human beings as they develop and the chance to participate in this physical, intellectual, and emotional growing. Life holds other opportunities of helping things grow, of course, whether they are gardens, clay pots, books or music, and for both parents enjoying other activities and having interests and responsibilities outside the home can enrich the environment of the children too. But sharing in the unfolding of human life is especially satisfying and just because it is possible for so many people, it should not be undervalued.


Women as Mothers, by Sheila Kitzinger (p. 229)


The Mother-Child Bond

The human ability to form loving relationships and live in inner serenity and joy is enhanced by the natural bonding which takes place within months after birth. The harmony that allowed past civilizations to flourish thousands of years without war sprang from its individual citizens. That way of life is so far removed from our present culture in time and awareness that it is virtually impossible for us to grasp the concept. However, their serenity was human and is therefore available for us to cultivate. We can nurture our babies to their natural heritage of being self-reliant, light-hearted adults who have an ingrained awareness of their own goodness and worth. These, our children, become the parents whose progeny will be close to living the joyful life of the ancients. There is only one means to start cultivation of a race of healthy human beings! We must establish and maintain the natural bond between mother and child during the first years of a child’s life.


In those races where mothering is still inherently natural and beyond the command of the intellect, bonding occurs as a matter of course. However, in our Western culture, where science, reason and intellect reign, mothering has fallen prey to analytical faculties. Bonding occurs instinctually in a single post-delivery moment between animals and their young and is referred to as “imprinting.” It is much more complex for humans. There is an initial establishment of a mysterious psychic rapport which is usually able to occur during the first four hours after birth; but if a newborn is not intensely nurtured through the next eight to ten months of the in-arms phase, the bonding process is not complete. The postnatal bonding is but the first requisite. During the first four hours after birth, if a mother is not permitted to caress her baby and bring him to her breast and her heart, she feels a state of true grief. Even more profound is the future effect on the newborn infant.


At birth, a baby’s physical environment undergoes radical changes: wet becomes dry, he is inverted to a level or head-up position, the temperature around him drops, and sounds are louder. During natural childbirth, he adapts to all this (plus breathing on his own!) with amazing ease. Following birth, an infant’s awareness is confined to rather hazy sensations. He has no capability for reasoning thought or for sensing time. Within that tiny human there is an in-born set of expectations for a suitable environment and culture. In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff tells how expectations “with which we confront life are inextricably involved with tendencies (for example: to suckle, to avoid physical harm, to crawl, to creep, to imitate).” Whatever the baby encounters becomes his awareness of the nature of life. If the inflexible in-born expectations of a newborn are not met, then, in an effort to restore stability, corrective tendencies arise. For example: If his body, having been totally enveloped by his mother’s womb, is not now comforted by the sensations of being embraced, then he will cry in his agony of motionlessness and, to find a semblance of relief, flail his arms and legs and tense his body till the sleep of terrified exhaustion overtakes him. What will become lifelong habits of body tension and the expectation of despairing want and intolerable impatience have begun. When unbonded babies reach adulthood, we find them still searching to satisfy their cravings. Their early treatment taught them to expect disillusionment, doubt, suspicion, fear of being further wounded and, sadly, resignation. The doom of resignation cuts them off from aspiration, hope, and growth. On the other hand, when an infant, his expectations met, finds gratification as a passive in-arms baby, the necessary foundation is laid for him as an adult who is able to grow and enjoy his environment and to form loving relationships. Whatever deprivations a baby experiences in his early months will be maintained throughout his growth—that first impression indelibly stamping on him the outline of his learned expectations.


Society’s Mothering

In our Western society, childbirth is ‘treated’ in a modern hospital. The newborn is traumatized by immediate removal from anything familiar and then deserted in the confines of the nursery. All that he has known no longer exists, his body cries out for the soft warmth, the secure embrace, the all-giving presence of the woman’s body that was lately his world. In our so called “advanced” countries, the vogue has been to let the baby cry (don’t spoil him, let him develop his lungs!) until his heart is broken. In a mindless terror of silence, a limbo bereft of living sensation, he screams until sleep descends. Those few delicious moments enfolded at his mother’s breast or in diapering hands are beyond recall, for there is no hope when there is no sense of time. Tension, lack, a state of longing become his sparse universe—his norm. There is little to use, to grow on, to fulfill his requirement for experience. In those areas where the ancestral expectations are not met, development is halted. Functioning in the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects will now be unbalanced. The surroundings our patriarchal Western culture thrusts upon our offspring has little relevance to their built-in expectancies. The majority of parents strive to bring together the best they can for their children. However, the young family finds little aid in what their similarly uninformed elders have to offer. Today’s adults have seldom learned parenting from personal experience with their little brothers/sisters or neighborhood babies, more likely they must rely on reference books and their own parents’ floundering experiments.


Natural Mothering

In cultures such as the Yequanas of South America, (documented by Jean Liedloff in The Continuum Concept) where mothering is still instinctive, the baby is in close contact with his mother’s body from the moment he emerges from the womb. After the umbilical cord has stopped pulsating and is cut, the newborn is given his mother’s breast and the initial spiritual bonding takes place. During the next months, the bonding process continues. The baby is seldom separated from his mother’s arms. He experiences the rhythms, motions, smells, sounds and light changes that continually vary with his mother’s activities. The infant is stimulated and enriched by the sensations in the expected environment. He learns that he is ‘good’ by the in-arms feeling of rightness. The baby and his mother are regarded as a unit by the community. For the first weeks, the mother is free to devote all of her energies to her baby while members of the community take responsibility for her usual occupations. In her childhood, the tiny Yequana girl’s maternal urge is not channeled away with dolls. She instinctively mothers infants; and by the time she marries, is an experienced nurturer having refined her skills on the babies in her own family and among her neighbors. Aspects of the matriarchal culture of the Yequana may be recognized in others which have that same nurturing attitude towards their children such as in the rural areas of Italy, Mexico and India. They value leisure, fun, instinct, and ecstasy, and impart these to their young in the flow of Dionysian being and enjoying.


Effects of Human Bonding

The contrast between the two methods of rearing reappears with greater definition in the resultant adults. With the deprivation of concentrated mothering, our society is bringing forth people with impaired intellects, shrunken emotions, and a lack of conscience—pitiful beings who feel diminished or no joy, grief, guilt, humor, or love. We can identify many of these victims, whereas the richness of the bonding, in-arms experience in infancy develops a natural sense of self-esteem, self-reliance and the ability to form loving human relationships. The intellectually and emotionally healthy youths who result will be primed for the growth necessary to be tomorrow’s citizens.


There is a growing awareness that it is the experience-deprivation of infants wherein lies the formation of those stunted persons who are making up an increasingly greater portion of our population. For those of us dedicated to parenting, and especially we who are devoted to developing a better culture, it is paramount to learn and use re-emerging awareness of instinct and the scientific studies of the child’s ancient natural evolution. Selma Fraiberg, in her book, Every child’s birthright: in defense of mothering, relates extensive research comparing children nurtured by their mothers through the early months of life with those deprived of a single attentive nurturer, or any mothering at all. She shows how babies who don’t establish an attachment to one person are unable to value one person above another. In The Magic Years, Fraiberg examines the way we communicate love and how “the language of the smile, the language of vocal sound-­making, the language of the embrace” are learned as a babe in arms and are used “when the baby is grown and ‘falls in love’ for the first time.” Peter Wolff of Harvard has discovered that during the third and fourth weeks, a baby smiles specifically in response to his mother’s voice. In his first few days, a baby will respond to the appearance of any face with a smile. Fraiberg concludes that the smile is “our tribal greeting sign”—a specific greeting pattern that exists only in those species that form personal bonds. Between six weeks and eight months, the baby’s smile response shows how he discriminates the face of his mother or ‘need-satisfying persons’ from all others. He is ‘falling in love’ with his mother! He has learned how to love and, as a result, will easily feel and express love as an adult, whether it be to his wife, children or associates. Then by the time a baby is six months old, he experiences true grief when his mother is absent, even for a short period, as he cannot understand that she will return. He can only be comforted by his mother, he wants play and demonstrations of love from her. Nature supplies us with the perfect assurance that this all-important emotional bonding initially takes place: breast feeding! Between one and two years the infant goes on brief excursions away from his mother and, by two and one-half years he can tolerate short separations. But, if the separation lasts for more than a few days he feels his mother is lost and cannot grasp that she will come back. If, however, children are deprived of sustained human attachments (such as those in institutions or foster homes), they don’t have a preference for one nurturer over another, their conceptual thinking is impaired, (even when better care is provided in the second and third years), and their impulses are uncontrolled. This is especially true in regard to aggression: more numerous temper tantrums, less tolerance of frustration, uncontrolled behavior, impulsiveness. Dr. John Bowlley’s study regarding children suffering from “emotional deprivation resulting from lack of mothering” documents the children’s unsatisfied quest for love and their lying, stealing, brutality, infantile behavior, and search for mother-figures as adults.


On the other hand, the infant who has learned to love through a completed in-arms phase develops self4eliance. He is always present in his mother’s day-to-day living and sleeping but he is seldom the center of attention. When he begins to crawl, creep and walk, his mother needs to be available as he comes to her or calls her. One cannot become independent of his mother unless it is through her. Liedloff also points Out in The Continuum Concept that “when a baby has had all he needs of experience in his mother’s arms, he parts with her of his own free will.” Among the Yequana, the mother’s attention seldom focuses directly on her baby though he is always present. She is receptive and always available but does not initiate contacts. This puts the infant in a position of action; he is allowed to explore and follow his desires and, when he is sleepy or hungry, it is the baby who goes to his mother. He demands little, for he has no sense of something missing! These children are free to investigate anything—even dangerous places, fire, and sharp knives. Their instinctive and infallible knowledge of self-preservation is an accepted fact. By the time he becomes a toddler, the child is used to “feeling and being considered right or ‘good’.” The Yequana children act by their own volition, are treated with the same respect as an adult, and are allowed to play, eat and sleep as they wish. Whenever he is taught the socially acceptable habits and rules (for example toilet training), he readily obeys. His innate drives guide him to follow examples and do what is expected of him. A Western child may rebel in a bid for attention to fill an ever-present need for the cuddling denied him as an infant.


Due to their constant contact, the energy fields of the bonded baby and caretaker are combined, and excess energy can be discharged for both through the mother’s activities alone. Thus the baby is relaxed and easy to handle compared with our infants who wiggle and kick and strain, trying to relieve their built-up tension. In deprived adults, permanently armored with muscle tension, their energy build-up doesn’t release. Liedloff tells us that they live in “a fairly chronic state of dissatisfaction which manifests itself in bad temper, inordinate interest in sex, inability to concentrate, nervousness, or promiscuity.” In our present culture, the human enjoyment of bodily contact is construed as sexual, further denying the unbonded person of the friendly reassurance found in touching and holding.


What happens the first two years of one’s life bears directly on what one is able to accomplish in his or her lifetime through personal growth and service to mankind. We see the results of an absence of bonding in many people in institutions for the mentally ill, in prison, in the slums, and the underworld. They seem to be humorless, their emotions do not reach to joy, grief, guilt, or remorse. Tensions, and an appetite for extreme sensations, grow out of this emotional vacuum, resulting in indiscriminate brutality and drug usage, etc. Fraiberg also tells us that “in absence of human ties, a conscience cannot be formed; even the qualities of self-observation and self-criticism fail to develop.” These ‘shadow’ people cannot value one person above another and therefore painlessly change partners in the absence of love and treat their children with indifference. It is awesome how the in-arms bonding produces people who strive to serve mankind rather than those with a selfish compulsion that endeavors to alleviate their continuous ache for something that is missing.


The mother’s role during the bonding phase in those formative months is of utmost importance. She must always be available to her child to her child for comfort, food, and holding; yet offer the minimum of guidance so as not to usurp his initiative. An overly enthusiastic parent, trying to be protective, may weaken a child and stunt the growth of independence. The father, of course, also has the opportunity to build his little one’s excess reservoir of love and affection. He, too, can teach, cuddle, bathe and offer new exciting experiences in loving play. Babies chortle in glee when involved in games of toss, peek-a-boo and the like, and they actually seek out and initiate such occupations of happy pleasure and sensation. It’s the beginning of their lifetime of education! Father’s example is essential and is especially important when the tot voluntarily ventures away from the maternal embrace. There is something very special about the father’s presence. He is the interface to the outside world and another person to emulate and imitate. Theodore Heburgh writes, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother”!


The whole community also has a responsibility towards its youngsters. Let us learn to welcome, as a unit, mothers with children everywhere. Expect it! Mothers, make use of the slings that hold your baby to you on your side or back and hold him to you during many of your activities. We, in turn, can help fill a mother’s pressing need for support and adult company. Develop a relaxed awareness of children and babies, and see child care as a non-activity. Increase demonstration of affection (with everyone!). Hold the little ones on your lap! You will not only nurture a wonderfully-fulfilled new generation, but you will reap the deliciousness of eager eyes that trust and tiny arms that reach out for hugs and kisses.


The “path” for the future generation will be smoother and shorter if we provide optimum conditions for physical, emotional, and spiritual expansion. Mother’s bonding with the newly arrived baby builds the bridge he needs and expects, and the resultant finely-honed brain will help him cut through the myths and misconceptions of our present society and allow him to better grasp Higher Truths. The intellect in a fully-developed brain is free to cultivate and use the Ten Qualities of Mind: memory, desire, will, curiosity, consciousness, conscience, creativeness, intuition, reason and emotion. It is through linkages with others that we attain psychological and emotional maturity. Therefore, successful bonding is the natural first step to a successful life. We presently have the knowledge and devotion to elevate our children to levels far above our own. A sincere concern will help us re-establish a society that is completely supportive of bonding. What a privilege and responsibility we have in helping people to the frontier between current societies and future cultures.