Maternal Deprivation

Eight hundred years ago, Fredrick II, who was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, created an experiment in which he wanted to find out which language children would speak "naturally" or on their own (Stone and Church, 1957). He ordered that a group of babies be taken from their mothers and cared for by foster mothers and nurses. These caregivers were told to feed, bathe, and see to the needs of these children, but no one was to speak to these children at all, in any language. He apparently wondered which of the great languages the babies would naturally speak: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, or the language of their parents to whom they were born. Of course, Frederick never found out which language the children would have spoken. Sadly, his experiment resulted in the death of all the babies—because of the lack of appropriate mothering. The babies were not able to live without being touched, seeing smiles and changes of emotion, and hearing the loving, soothing words of a mother. The babies became withdrawn, depressed, and died (Stone and Church, 1957).

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for children to be placed in state-run institutions or foundling homes. During the early 1900s, several medical doctors looked into the extreme death rates, between 90% and 100% in some of these institutions. They found that even the few children who survived early childhood in these homes developed delays and disturbances in the normal course of development. Rene Spitz (1945, p. 54) described these child survivors of institutions as "asocial, delinquent, feeble-minded, psychotic, or problem children... practically without exception," and he related these findings to the lack of maternal nurturance. Wanting to understand what effects the lack of mothering would have on a baby, Spitz (1946) observed and recorded what happened to a group of 123 infants who were deprived of emotional and physical contact with others by nature of their institutional environment. This environment provided these motherless babies with basic care but very little human interaction. They existed in a dimly lit, but clean and hygienic environment. They had adequate food, appropriate clothing with pastel colors, blankets, and regular medical care. They initially had no toys, although this changed with time. These babies had little visual stimuli, and, in fact, they had sheets hanging in between the cribs or cots—essentially creating a "solitary confinement." These babies had minimal human contact, limited primarily to feeding times. Spitz observed these children to deteriorate over time and to develop a group of symptoms, which he later termed anaclitic depression. This syndrome included the following symptoms: apprehension, sadness, weepiness, lack of contact, rejection of environment, withdrawal, retardation of development, retardation of reaction to stimuli, slowness of movement, dejection, stupor, loss of appetite, refusal to eat, loss of weight, and insomnia. He added that one additional symptom should be included, although it was difficult to describe. He portrayed it as a physiognomic expression, likening it to the expression of an adult who was depressed.

In 1945 Spitz compared children who were confined to institutions with same-age children living with their parents in either an urban or a rural area. The institutionalized children were the children of poor Latina women who did not have enough money to care for their infants. Their babies were generally healthy at first and were able to continue being breast-fed. Nonetheless, they remained in an institutional setting.

The other subgroup of babies were the children of what Spitz (1945, p. 60) termed "delinquent minors as a result of social maladjustment or feeblemindedness, or because they were psychically defective, psychopathic, or criminal." These mothers were prisoners in a penal institution. The babies of these women were weaned early and continued to receive care from their own mothers, with coaching from others.

The Latina foundling babies fared the worst. These babies experienced a drop in IQ from 124 to 72 over the first year (the other groups remained the same or improved) and fell to 45 by the end of the second year. In addition, Spitz found increased illness and infection rates in the foundling babies, high death rates, and developmental delays. Sadly, only 2 of 26 surviving 2V2-year-old children could speak a couple of words, most were unable to do any self-care behaviors, and none had been toilet trained. Spitz argued that even though the Latina babies did have caregivers who were very sincere in their work with the babies, they did not have the time or the resources to adequately care for the babies. Essentially, he said, these babies were in "solitary confinement" as they rarely saw or interacted with a caregiver.

Freud and Burlingame (1944), Provence and Lipton (1962), and Dennis (1973), who also studied institutionalized children deprived of a mothering relationship, all came to the same general conclusions—that in spite of proper physical care, infants and children who lack an opportunity to emotionally bond with a "mother or mother-substitute" can lead to extreme forms of dysfunction in the child or death. These children often demonstrated decreased growth, decreased development, increased risk of psychiatric disturbances, increased levels of illness, and high death rates.

Hrdy (1999) states that what makes human primates different is the combination of our intelligence and the empathetic capacity. The empathetic component is the foundation of morality. Kochanska and Murray (2000) found that early mother-child relationships predicted preschool evaluations of the child's moral sense. The National Institute for Child Health and Development's daycare study found that the mother-child relationship explained more variance in child outcomes than the time in and quality of childcare environments (NICHD, 1999). Likewise, in a study of kibbutz infants, there was a difference in attachment security for infants sleeping with their mothers at night versus infants sleeping away from home, even though daytime contact with parents was similar (Sagi, van IJzendoorn, Aviezer, Konnell, and Mayseless, 1994). It thus seems that children need regular daily physical connections with their mothers in order to sustain secure attachments.

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