-Written by Katie Little ‘18
Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure assesses the bonds babies have with their mothers by observing babies’ reactions to a series of episodes in which their mothers leave and return. Babies who are securely attached become distressed when their mothers leave, but they are later soothed when she returns (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Secure attachment is present in roughly 60% of infants (Campos et al., 1983).
A securely attached baby’s attachment to his or her mother begins very early in life and can be aided by several biological mechanisms. For example, in the hours after giving birth, a mother has higher oxytocin levels, which help with maternal behavior and bonding (Mehler et al., 2010).
However, babies who are born prematurely can have health complications, developmental delays, very low birth weights, and many other experiences and conditions that might make their development of bonds with their mothers different than that of babies born at full term.
A study conducted by Mehler, Wedrich, Kissgen, Roth, Oberthuer, Pillekamp, and Kribs in 2010 sought to look at this phenomena. They looked at how many weeks early the babies were born, birth weight, delivery method, and pregnancy complications. They also looked at how long the babies needed assistance to breathe and hospital time, as well as clinical measures of health, mental development, and psychomotor development. For the mothers, they looked at the mother’s age, the social status of both parents, whether the pregnancy was planned, unplanned, or aided with reproductive medicine, and depression.
All of these factors, while they might make some difference in the attachment security of the mother and infant, did not make a consistent enough change in attachment security to be used as predicting factors. However, the experimenters also looked at 2 other factors: when the mother first got to see and touch her baby after the baby’s birth, as well as whether the child was the couple’s first.
They found that babies who saw their mothers within the first three hours of birth were more likely to form secure attachment bonds. Additionally, mothers who were able to touch their babies within this time period were slightly more likely to form secure attachment bonds than mothers who were only able to see their babies.
First born children were also much less likely to form secure attachment bonds with their mothers if born prematurely than subsequent children. Overall, these results suggest that maternal contact within the first three hours after their birth and not being the first born child can help babies born prematurely form secure attachment bonds.
Ainsworth, M.D.S & Bell, S.M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 1970, 41.1., 49-67.
Campos, J. J., Barrett, K. C., Lamb, M. E., Goldsmith, H. H., & Stenberg, C. (1983). Socioemotional development. In M. M. Haith & J. J. Campos (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2. Infancy and psychobiology (pp. 783-915). New York: Wiley.
Mehler, K., Wendrich, D., Kissgen, R., Roth, B., Oberthuer, A., Pillekamp, F., & Kribs, A. (2011). Mothers seeing their VLBW infants within 3 h after birth are more likely to establish a secure attachment behavior: Evidence of a sensitive period with preterm infants? Journal of Perinatology, 31, 404-410.
Image found: https://openclipart.org/detail/163399/mother-and-baby