Our pedigree for successful mothering
In seeking the best way to rear infants and meet their needs,
it is instructive to consider our ancestral pedigree to gain some
understanding of the common biological givens, which we all
inherit as human beings. Breastfeeding mammals have been on earth
for at least 100 million years. Those who were recognizably human
extend back about 5 million years, and apes have been on earth for
about 15-20 million years.
To glimpse the amazing scale of your own pedigree, you may
imagine a procession, starting with your own mother and
grandmother; they are followed in order by all your direct
maternal ancestors. Each embraces her daughter, so that four
generations - covering one hundred years - are in each meter.
Twenty meters will take you back 2000 years. In a hundred meters
you can review the line of your direct maternal ancestors for the
past 10,000 years. But to go back 5 million years you would travel
50 kilometers, past an unbroken line of your own mothers!
It is safe to assume that, over the millennia, some 99% of
all these mothers each successfully breastfed and nurtured her own
daughter, who successfully grew up and did the same thing. All
their sisters who failed to reach maturity and reproduce dropped
out of the picture. It follows that, over millions of years, this
pedigree selectively and efficiently bred for success and survival
in all the essential aspects of healthy mothering.
We could imagine a similar line of paternal ancestors. We know
that they all had sexual drives but their contributions to
childrearing are less clearly discernible. However, it is likely
that they were selected to have some satisfaction in supporting
the care of their offspring, since human infants are so
vulnerable. It seems biologically reasonable that those fathers
who best helped their infants' mothers to rear them to maturity
would have had an advantage in natural selection to be represented
in the next generation. There was no biological advantage in being
a mighty hunter unless you also ensured the protection and
survival of your own young children and their mothers.
We may note in passing that a chimpanzee mother will surrender
her infant to the care of another (related) female only as a favor
to that female, and for a brief period. Our genes are 98.4% the
same as those of chimpanzees and it is unlikely that the 1.6% that
are different have significantly changed an activity as
successfully tested as mothering.
Nature's rewards and satisfactions
I suggest it follows from the above that:
- There is arguably no occupation available today for which a
woman of child-bearing age is more specifically prepared by
her pedigree than that of breastfeeding, nurturing and rearing
her own infant.
- There is arguably also a genetic basis for a man to derive
basic satisfactions from being a father to his children, and
from participating in parenting, or at least in providing
security for the mother of his young children to do so.
- Nature provides pleasure, and often deep satisfaction, in
doing things which are essential for survival of the species.
Of these, breastfeeding and nurturing the young are, like
mating, fundamental. If these satisfactions are missing, the
fault is much more likely to be in the (earlier or present)
environment of the mother than in her inherited biology.
- It is a logical corollary that nature - or natural selection
- has, over the millions of years, favored the survival of
those infants and young children who gave their mothers
(primarily), and related adults in the group, enough joy and
satisfaction as "rewards" to outweigh the burdens
and survival handicaps involved in rearing them. Otherwise, in
those conditions, they would not have done it. In a
"marathon" over this length of time an inherited
shortcoming in this respect would sooner or later prejudice
survival, and so be eliminated.
- It further follows that if such satisfactions are lacking,
then this is a matter for diagnosis and treatment. A New
Zealand survey (Ritchie J & J 1970, p.43) found that as
many as 40% of mothers felt that the burden of having young
children outweighed or only just balanced the satisfactions
and enjoyment they received. What had gone wrong? The problem
probably lay in both the individual parents and in the
childrearing tenets and culture of the society (See Ritchie J
& J 1970; Cook 1978; see Appendix I). For example, Dr
Penelope Leach argued that "our society is inimical to
children" (Leach 1994, p.xiii).
- The book Children in Australian Families for
secondary school students (Duffy 1995, citing Ochiltree 1990),
states that "the idea that mothering is both natural and
a pleasure is a myth". But if mothering is not natural -
then what is?
A carrying species
Dr N. Blurton Jones studied the question of whether humans
evolved as, or are by nature, one of the species of mammals that
caches (i.e. hides) the infants in a safe place, returning
periodically to feed them, or whether they are one of the carrying
species like monkeys and apes, in which the mothers carry their
infants wherever they go and feed them frequently.
He compared humans with members of caching species of
mammals on the one hand, and with higher primates which are carrying
species on the other. He concluded from a number of anatomical,
behavioral and physiological comparisons, including the
composition of the milk, that humans are indeed pre-adapted to be
a carrying species. Such species breast feed their young
frequently. He said that "if the implications of my
comparative study are correct then the situation in which babies
develop has been exceptionally constant throughout our evolution,
right back into our earliest hominid phase some twenty-five
million years ago and beyond throughout our entire higher primate
ancestry of some forty million years". (Blurton Jones 1972).
Experiences common to infants in all of fifty
diverse pre-industrial societies
What is the species-normal experience for human infants?
Despite the cultural transformations which have occurred in some
countries in recent millennia, and especially in recent centuries,
anthropological studies of pre-industrial societies have suggested
a remarkably unanimous answer.
The following emerged as universals in a large sample of
tropical and semi-tropical societies. Dr Emmy Werner (1972)
compared the findings of fifty cross-cultural studies of
psychomotor development, from birth to two years, of contemporary
groups of infants on five continents. African, Asian, Latin
American and Caucasian groups were compared, and within each
ethnic group "traditionally" reared rural infants showed
greater motor acceleration than "Westernized" urban
infants in the first six to twelve months. Moreover she found
"In spite of a great deal of cultural and geographical
diversity, all of the infants drawn from pre-industrial
communities shared certain common experiences during the first
- membership in an extended family system with many caretakers
- breastfeeding on demand, day and night
- constant tactile stimulation by the body of the adult
caretaker who carried the infant on her back or side, and
slept with him
- participation in all adult activities, with frequent
- lack of set routines for feeding, sleeping and toileting
- lack of restrictive clothing in a (semi) tropical
It is clear from the context of breastfeeding, carrying and
sleeping that the principal caretaker is normally the mother, but
there are many caretakers sharing the caring.
The fact that these experiences were universal in this group
of 50 pre-industrial societies, despite great cultural and
geographical diversity over five continents, gives confidence
that they are a guide to the normal, appropriate and presumably
healthy, early experiences for infants of our species and the
adult behavior which provides such experiences. Since it is in
accord with the behavior of our nearest primate relatives, it
shows some essentials of the early inter-personal environment in
which human infants and their mothers have evolved, and which are
most likely to meet their respective and mutually-complementary
needs in ways which promote emotional health.
The mothers in those pre-industrial societies all had
traditions and personal experiences which led them to follow these
patterns, probably without consciously deliberating about what
their infants' needs were. Their customs and observations of
mothering were in harmony with their own intuition and their
infants' promptings. Werner's observations offer a well-grounded
basic guide to the needs of all human infants, since we are all
the one species.
These observations were all in societies living in a tropical
or semi-tropical climate and it is believed that humans evolved in
warm areas of Africa. Some differences developed over more recent
millennia as humans migrated to colder regions, but it seems that
they continued to offer their infants most of these experiences.
We may note here that Dr James Prescott analyzed a different
series of studies of 49 "primitive" societies. I do not
know the extent of overlap between the two series. He found that
those societies in which the infant was not carried or provided
with pleasurable body contact showed more violent characteristics
in a number of ways. Prescott's work is outlined in chapter 8.
Some may object that all this is not relevant today because our
life situations are very different. I suggest that it is
reasonable, in evaluating deviations from conditions like those of
our evolutionary environment, to distinguish whether or not they
cut across essential, genetically-based survival mechanisms. For
example, for a mother to take her child in a motor car and go to
the supermarket, while being bizarre behavior in species terms,
does not cut across any known survival mechanisms. It is
compatible with the above pattern of infant care, in many ways
that early long daycare is not.
By the standards of childrearing in many Western societies
until recent decades, these patterns of infant experience may seem
irrelevant, impossible, or even absurd. But they would not seem so
to millions of parents in Africa and Asia, nor to the increasing
numbers of mothers and fathers in Western societies, who are
finding that they can, with deep satisfaction, provide many of
these experiences for their own infants today. They are
discovering that they can happily follow such patterns to a
remarkable extent, learning that babies' wants are much the same
as their needs. Examples are seen in attention to parent-baby
bonding, mother-infant attunement, more flexible feeding, sleeping
and toileting regimes, the increasing use of baby-carrying slings
which allow body contact, and "night-time parenting"
(Thevenin 1976; Cook 1978; Sears 1987). It is possible that a
majority of babies in the world still have experiences like those
described in pre-industrial societies.
Some advocates of early child care try to make human infant
biology fit into policies which are shaped by some feminist values
and economic "rationalism". For example,
"Non-parental child care for preschool children is here to
stay and is a form of care suited to the conditions in modern
society." (Ochiltree 1994, p.116); and "In this version
it is accepted that humans are still evolving and different but
viable attachment patterns will emerge adapted to new pressures in
the environment." (van IJzendoorn and Tavecchio 1987, cited
in Ochiltree, p.69).
But humans don't evolve like that. Unless Lamarck was right in
his discredited belief in the genetic inheritance of acquired
characteristics, this evolution could only occur through the
selective survival of such infants and a higher rate of
failure to survive and reproduce among those infants less
well-adapted to these "new pressures in the
environment". This is a startling proposition from those
concerned for infant well-being! Even if such fundamental changes
were possible at all (and there are powerful reasons for doubting
it) they would take many, many generations of selective breeding
to achieve, with the likelihood of other (unforeseeable)
consequences. Children are adaptable but within limits set by our
biology. If stretched too far in ways that matter, disorders
appear, first in those more vulnerable and then on a larger scale.
The ways in which Western societies have progressively departed
from tribal patterns of group and social support for mothers are
now well studied, together with the injustices and inequalities
which have been suffered by women in many patriarchal societies.
In addition, some beliefs and related attitudes and customs in
Western societies have all too often been inimical to the needs of
infants and young children (Cook 1978).
It is sad and perverse that many who have worked to right the
wrongs done to women, have also sought to relieve women's burdens
by devaluing their role as mothers and relieving them
semi-permanently of their infants and young children. Child care
advocates sometimes argue that the infants are being properly
returned to group care with multiple carers, as in a tribe. But
they ignore the fact that, uniquely in the history of our species,
it is a group in a enclosed institution which does not include
mother, relatives or anyone with a continuing bond or any enduring
emotional commitment to that child. The consequent reduction
in the possibilities for personal contact, mother-infant
attunement, continuing secure attachments and tender loving care
are, in practice, mostly ignored.
There is a need to study what qualities of the environment and
social settings promote healthy and mutually satisfying
parent-child relationships. It appears that the natural setting in
which mothering behavior flourishes includes access to other
supportive adults and children, some relationship to adult
activities, access to the world of nature in some form, and
protection from excessive stress. (Some relevant dimensions are
suggested in Cook 1978, p.9).
Attachment, separation and mother-infant
John Bowlby's 1951 monograph
Until recently Western society did not clearly recognize the
emotional importance of the early mother-child relationship, but
in 1951 the World Health Organization published Maternal Care
and Mental Health by Dr John Bowlby. This landmark review of
the seriously damaging consequences which maternal and social
deprivation can have on the development of infants and young
children was an important milestone. It triggered much debate,
research, social change and revision of child development theory.
Since 1951 the world has been on notice that total early
separation and deprivation of the care which mothers normally
provide can have serious consequences. Bowlby went on, through
ethological, cross-cultural and psychological studies, to develop
his major contributions in his three-volume work Attachment and
Loss (Bowlby 1969; 1973; 1981). Yet some advocates of early
day care have sought to dismiss any relevance of this work to long
day care, describing it as "Bowlbyism" (Oakley 1981,
cited in Ochiltree 1984, p 8).
Bowlby studied natural sciences and psychology at Cambridge and
worked in a school for maladjusted children during his medical
training before becoming a psychoanalyst in 1937. He realized that
major separations from parents were significant early experiences
that could be positively verified, and so give a solid basis for
research into the importance of early experiences in psychological
development. He concluded that the first task for theory was to
understand the nature of the child's tie to his mother (Bowlby
Learning from animal behavior: attachment
In 1951 Bowlby learned that in some animal species such as
ducks and geese "a strong bond to an individual mother-figure
could develop rapidly during a sensitive phase of early life and
that it tended to endure" (Bowlby 1980, p. 8). He learned of
such patterns in other species, and heard that young monkeys being
raised without their mothers in depriving circumstances showed
many behavior patterns like those of young children raised in
institutions. He realized that ethology, which is the scientific
study of the behavior of animals (including humans), might shed
light on the emotional and behavioral disturbances which he had
reviewed in his 1951 monograph and seen in his work with disturbed
This involved understanding that the genetic inheritance with
which each living creature begins life is the outcome of a long
process of natural selection. Those characteristics which bring an
advantage for surviving in the environment at the time are more
likely to be passed on to later generations. The survival of
mammals, as animals which breastfeed their young, depends on
keeping the mother and her young together, both for protection and
for nourishment. Grazing animals must, from birth, be able to
follow their mothers, as they move on. This requires inherited
and automatic mechanisms since the matter is too urgent to be left
to the uncertainties of learning. But the babies of higher
primates, such as chimpanzees and humans, for some time after
their births are too immature to follow their mothers and must be
held and carried. Baby monkeys and apes hang on in front, and when
older they ride on their mothers' backs. Bowlby used the term
attachment for this tie or bond, and attachment behavior for those
behaviors that keep the young near the mother.
Owing to the size and rapid growth of the human brain, babies
must be born at a stage of maturity when other mammals would
remain safely in the uterus, in an environment that is normally
secure. There are reasons for suggesting that for as long as nine
months humans can be regarded as continuing the period of
gestation, but outside the womb - as "exterogestates"
undergoing exterior gestation (Bostock 1958). This pattern is seen
in marsupials, such as kangaroos and koalas, but they have the
convenience of a pouch supplied with a nipple.
Because of this human helplessness mother-infant attachment is
needed from birth, long before the baby develops true
infant-to-mother attachment. During this time babies like to be
held and carried, and Liedloff (1975) described this as the
"in-arms" stage of human development. A baby can do
little to overcome a potentially dangerous separation except cry,
and then reward the parents by showing appreciation, and later
affection, when they respond.
It is now known that from the time of birth there is much more
going on between new babies and their mothers than was imagined
until the 1970s. While the mother-infant attachment or bonding
side of this interaction has become familiar, the active role of
the baby in this two-way process is less well known.
Research since the 1970's has supported Bowlby's view that the
new baby has innate social capacities. Studies have shown that an
(unsedated) newborn baby can see, hear and move in rhythm to his
mother's voice "in the first minutes and hours of life
resulting in a beautiful linking of the reactions of the two and a
synchronized dance between mother and infant" (Klaus &
Kennell 1976). From soon after birth babies show a preference for
their own mother's voice and the smell of her milk. They prefer a
human face to other shapes and can distinguish certain emotions.
Thus a baby is innately equipped to encourage a communicating
relationship, and encourage her mother to fall in love with, or
become crazy about her baby, though this does not always happen.
Many fathers, too, have been surprised by how thrilled they feel
when their new baby gazes into their eyes, and the excitement of
caring for this real little person seizes them and they become
Frame-by-frame analysis of film and video-recordings, pioneered
since 1971 by Dr Daniel N. Stern, have shown that a kind of
micro-world of intricate behavioral communication develops as a
mother and baby get to know each other. Mothers too, appear to be
innately equipped to sense these cues, and sensitive, responsive
mothering is normally rewarded by a remarkable
"attunement" of playful two-way synchronized
interactions which have been described as a "dance",
each responding to the cues of the other. Positive interactions
bring joy and delight, but the details of less positive reactions
to mismatch and disharmony, such as turning away, are also clearly
shown by babies (Stern 1985). This "astonishing
attunement" in the healthy mother-infant relationship is a
facet of nature's health-promoting processes.
Thus the infant "is given both an innate general
repertoire of these behaviors to perform and the mechanisms to
decode their performance in others" (Stern 1995, p.65). These
"micro-events" which last split-seconds, are "the
basic steps of an interactive regulatory process" to regulate
the level of feeling and activity occurring between mother and
infant. Through them the infant gives cues to her mother to guide
her to match the infant's developmental needs, and these processes
occur in feeding and other activities. Soon the infant not only
responds to, but actively seeks to modify, the adult's behavior.
As the mother communes with her baby she appears to be giving her
infant "a sense of being appreciated, validated, and
approved, which seems to be such a vital need at this time of
life" (Karen 1994, p.351; see also Thoman & Browder
Research has shown that well-synchronized mother-infant
interactions predict secure infant-mother attachment and this is
important (Isabella & Belsky 1991). It seems that maternal
sensitivity does "promote security by fostering trust. That
trust, then, forms the foundation for the babies secure attachment
to the mother." (Steinberg & Meyer 1988).
This process may develop in less healthy ways. If the mother is
insensitive to the baby's cues, perhaps being over-controlling, or
too stimulating, the baby may after a time develop protective ways
to avoid such stresses. If mother is unwell or depressed she may
be unable to respond and such situations may need help (see Stern
1995), but our purpose here is to understand the healthy pattern.
It is not surprising that, as shown in chapter 5, long day child
care may have a disruptive influence on infant-mother attunement.
The balance between exploration and attachment
As they become mobile, human infants explore the world from the
secure base of the mother or some familiar adult, keeping an eye
on where mother is, so that they can scurry back to her as a haven
of safety if they sense a threat of danger. In this way the
healthy drive to exploration behavior which might lead a toddler
into danger is normally held in balance by attachment behavior.
The child's perception of any risks, or their absence, will
determine which urge prevails (see Ainsworth & Bowlby 1991).
An enterprising researcher wrote a neat paper describing such
behavior by toddlers in a London park, and it is easy to observe
If the toddler is unable to locate mother this is cause for
alarm, and other activities are suspended until she is found.
Failure to locate mother is valid grounds for fear, and the
separation now activates in-built behavioral systems which are
part of nature's survival equipment, "designed" to bring
mother and child safely together again.
If an infant is afraid that mother will disappear he may try to
prevent this by clinging behavior. If a mother tries to stop this
clinging by punishment or by pushing the infant away this may add
to his reasons for anxiety. The child's in-built response to fear
is to cling more closely, and this can lead to a vicious circle of
rejection by the mother, leading to more clinging by the infant.
Multiple attachment figures
Though he is sometimes misrepresented, Bowlby specifically
denied ever saying that mothering should always be provided by the
natural mother or that mothering cannot safely be distributed
among several figures (Bowlby 1969, p.303). As the first year
progresses into the second, infants may have several attachment
figures, usually including father, siblings and grandparents,
depending on who has cared for them. In non-parental child care
they develop attachments to care-givers if the care is sensitive
and favorable. However there is an hierarchy of preferences, and
mother is usually the preferred and principal attachment figure,
if she is available.
Infants' reactions to major separations
Bowlby worked with James Robertson who, with his wife Joyce,
played a major role in reforming the care of children in hospitals
throughout the world (Robertson J & J 1989). By observing and
filming children in the second and early third year of life while
they were undergoing complete separation from their mothers and
other attachment figures, Robertson saw that, unless young
children were receiving responsive substitute mothering, they
typically went through three successive stages which he termed
protest, despair, and finally detachment.
Bowlby described how it was found that if a child between the
ages of about twelve months and three years is removed from his
mother-figure to whom he is attached and placed with strangers in
a strange place, "his initial response ... is one of protest
and of urgent effort to recover his lost mother. 'He will often
cry loudly, shake his cot, throw himself about, and look eagerly
towards any sight or sound which might prove to be his missing
mother.' This may with ups and downs continue for a week or more.
Throughout it the child seems buoyed up in his efforts by the hope
and expectation that his mother will return.
"Sooner or later, however, despair sets in. The
longing for mother does not diminish, but the hope of its being
realized fades. Ultimately the restless noisy demands cease: he
becomes apathetic and withdrawn, a despair broken only perhaps by
an intermittent and monotonous wail. He is in a state of
unutterable misery." (Bowlby 1981, p.9). Bowlby termed this a
state of grief and described how, although the child is
quieter and less explicit in his communications, his behavior and
words show an orientation to the lost mother which may become
disguised but it is persistent. This longing for the mother
"is often suffused with intense, generalized hostility"
After discussing the relationship of this to mourning,
Bowlby described how, after a week or more out of his mother's
care and without being specially cared for by an assigned
substitute, the phase of detachment develops, with "an
almost complete absence of attachment behavior when he first meets
his mother again." (1981, p.20). At this stage the child can
be superficially cheerful and friendly to almost anyone, except to
his mother if she reappears. Staff in hospitals and residential
nurseries used to look forward to this stage, saying that the
child had "settled", so parental visits were sometimes
discouraged to avoid "upsetting" the child by
reactivating his overt protests.
Earlier this stage was called one of denial, since it
appeared that the child could no longer bear the anguish of loss
of the one he loved most, and a psychological mechanism of denial
had supervened as a protection against continuing emotional pain.
Clearly, this is a disordered and unhealthy state to develop in an
infant's love life. The basic trust which a healthy infant
normally develops in his mother seems to have been blocked.
Smaller elements of blocking of attachment longings can be seen
following much briefer separations than those leading to the fully
developed state of detachment (for example, see Harsman's study in
Children vary and the longer-term consequences of separation
are also influenced by what happens subsequently. Bowlby regarded
detachment as a psychological defensive exclusion process, and it
occurs in mourning. An important matter for future mental health
was whether this process was reversible, but he said that "In
infants and children, it appears, defensive processes once set in
motion are apt to stabilize and persist" (1981, p.21). He
described how these defensive processes may be seen in adult
patients who have suffered early separations. "As a result
the desires, thoughts and feelings that are part and parcel of
attachment behavior become absent from awareness" despite the
patient's wishes to the contrary (Bowlby 1980, p.19). It seemed
that the behavioral systems governing attachment behavior had
become de-activated and remained so.
The significance of attachment experiences for human
Unraveling the relationship of attachment experiences to
personality development was a major part of Bowlby's life work.
Much research has been done using the theories that he developed
and some of this is discussed in chapter 4.
The last eleven chapters of Bowlby's trilogy were concerned
with the mourning of children. He concluded the Epilogue to the
last volume of Attachment and Loss by saying:
"Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub
around which a person's life revolves, not only when he is an
infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout his
adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old
age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength
and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives
strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which
current science and traditional wisdom are at one." (Bowlby
1981, p. 442).
Relevance to child care?
The big question for long day care for infants and young
children is: to what extent does this knowledge about attachment
reactions to major separations apply to those separations which
occur for most of the waking hours during most days of the week?
To what extent are "caregivers" adequate secondary
attachment figures or adequate substitutes for the principle
attachment figure, ideally or in practice?
Are the reactions documented by Harsman (1994), and described
in chapter 5, less dramatic, "micro" examples of similar
processes, and if so what consequences do they have for optimal
human development? Observing Swedish children for five months
after starting day care at ages of 6 to 12 months, she reported
that "52% showed a negative change in mood during the initial
period and they were assessed as sad and depressed in the
day-care setting." Two or three of these infants
"reacted in line with the classical phases of 'protest and
despair' "(Italics inserted). In the history of medicine
the fully developed forms of a disorder are described first. After
this classical picture has become familiar then milder forms and
variations start to be recognized.
Dr. Mary Ainsworth built upon Bowlby's work in her studies of
mother-infant relationships, and she developed a method for
assessing the quality of the infant-mother side of the attachment
relationship. This Strange Situation assessment, carried out
sometime between 12 and 20 months and taking only 20 to 25
minutes, is based on detailed observation of how an infant reacts
when reunited with his mother after two brief experimental
separations under controlled conditions. It has proved a
remarkable instrument which has led to much productive research,
particularly in studying outcomes of early day care. It is
described in chapter four.
In his book Becoming Attached: Unfolding the Mystery of the
Infant-Mother Bond and its Impact on Later Life, Robert Karen
(1994) gives an authoritative, readable account of the development
of the theories, research and controversies arising out of the
pioneering work of John Bowlby, James Robertson, Mary Ainsworth
and many others involved in this crucial area of child
development. Many of these pioneers were interviewed by Karen in
preparing his book. Academic reviews of theory and evidence
relating to attachment may be found in Belsky & Cassidy (1994)
and Rutter (1995).