Thirty years on – the babies judged negatively by their mothers

If a mother has a negative perception of her baby when it’s just one month old, there’s a strong possibility that same baby will have attachment problems as an adult, thirty or forty years later. That’s the claim of a longitudinal study that recommends screening new mothers to see if they have a negative perception of their child, so that any necessary action can be taken to stop the transmission of attachment problems from mother to child.

Elsie Broussard and Jude Cassidy recruited twenty-six adults in the area of Pittsburgh, whose mothers had signed up to a longitudinal study up to forty years earlier. Back then, in the 60s and 70s, the mothers had been asked to rate their one-month-old babies on factors like crying, spitting, sleeping, feeding and predictability, and then do the same for the ‘average baby’. Twelve of the babies were judged to be at risk because their mothers had rated them more negatively than an average baby. Back to the present, and the researchers interviewed the adults using the Adult Attachment Interview, which includes questions about memories of their childhood, their memories of separation and loss and whether they felt affected by their parents’ behaviour. Based on these kinds of questions, the participants were classified as being securely or insecurely attached, the latter classification suggesting that they have ongoing problems forming healthy emotional attachments to other people.

The key finding is that 9 of the 12 adults who, so many years earlier, had been perceived negatively by their mothers were today classified as insecurely attached adults, compared with just 2 of the 14 adults who’d been positively perceived by their mothers. ‘…These findings reflect transmission from one individual’s representational world to that of another,’ the researchers said. In other words, the researchers believe that a mother who views her baby negatively has attachment problems and these problems tend to be passed onto that baby, even affecting his or her attachment style thirty or forty years later.

How could a negative attachment style be transmitted in this way? Apparently, earlier work in Broussard’s lab showed that ‘mothers with a negative perception of their infants had limited awareness of their infant’s states, had difficulties recognising their infant’s signals, and lacked a flexible and effective range of responses.’ Moreover, the researchers surmised, babies with mothers who perceive them negatively may fail to come to see their mother as a secure base and may come to feel ‘rejected and unloved, feelings that may contribute to an insecure state of mind [in adulthood] with respect to attachment.’ Given their results, Broussard and Cassidy suggested more professional support be given to new mothers, especially during the critical early period between hospital discharge and the next contact with medical staff.

As with so many studies that look for effects of parenting on children, this study contains a serious confound that’s barely touched upon by the researchers. The effects that Broussard and Cassidy attribute to parenting and attachment style could well be genetic. We’re not surprised when the children of tall parents grow up to be tall. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the children of insecurely attached parents grow up to be insecurely attached themselves.

ResearchBlogging.orgBroussard, E., & Cassidy, J. (2010). Maternal perception of newborns predicts attachment organization in middle adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 12 (1), 159-172 DOI: 10.1080/14616730903282464

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

9 thoughts on “Thirty years on – the babies judged negatively by their mothers”

  1. I can't access the full article at the moment, and I realize that it's a longitudinal study started in the 1960s, but why is there still this total focus on mothers in attachment studies? What about fathers?

  2. If I'm to believe my book on Emotion (Oatley et al), they have looked at the genetics of attachment, and found that more of the variance in attachment style is attributable to environment (and the interaction I believe) than to genetics – that it does not sewem to have a heritable component – but this is not my area of research so I'm not up on the primary literature. Temperament seems to have a strong genetic component, but how that would affect a parents rating is not clear. THere seemed to be a relative rating (my kid is… compared to average kid…), so there is the perception of what an average kid is like, and where that comes from, but one could think that a parent who was reactive may also think that babies just ought to be reactive, so their baby is just as one could (etc).

    I do think they look at attachment for all types of attachment figures these days – fathers, mothers, daycareproviders, adoptive parents. Its a bit hard to change a longitudinal study, but I certainly get info on attachment to fathers also when I do the introduction to development lecture.

  3. It does not sound like a comparable attachment inventory was taken of the mothers. The mothers' negative perceptions are not synonymous with insecure attachment, so we can not assume a genetic trend simply with this data.
    It sounds likely that maternal attribution (negative perception) is a result of insecure attachment in these mothers, but this assumption should be tested.

  4. Do the authors of the study consider the possibility that there is something about the particular one-month-old babies involved that is objectively repellent – and that the mother's negative estimation of her child is correct and realistic, rather than a symptom of some maternal defect like “insecure attachment”?

  5. As I understand it, attachment is mediated by hormones, and low attachment may indicate low hormones, which could have significant long-term implications. For one thing, hormonal activity in the mother directly influences the hormone behavior in the child, which has long-term effects on brain structure. For another thing, a person's typical hormone production tendencies may indeed be heritable, meaning the child may have similarly low levels of the attachment hormones as an adult. Furthermore, the mother-child interaction is not confined to that one-month period. Long-term interactions between a mother and child will continue to be mediated by hormone levels, meaning persistently low levels will entrench the poor relationship established early on, while changing levels might ameliorate the early damage.

  6. Oh, fantastic, another study interpretable as an excellent way to make sure mothers have *another* reason to feel like shite on a shingle because *whatever they do* might harm their baby *forever*. Based on a sample of 26, 12 of whom had apparent attachment problems in later life.

    Judas priest on a pogo stick, why promulgate this particular study?

    Vinaigrette Girl

  7. My two sons couldn't be more different from each other, and the fact of their enormous personality difference was obvious when the younger was a week old.

    I'm going to go with “babies with difficult personalities can cause maternal depression and attachment problems” rather than blaming it all on the mother.

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