What Is Maternal Deprivation?

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  • Written By: Melissa Barrett
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2019
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Most psychologists believe that infants and children must form close relationships with a single primary caregiver for healthy development. In most cases, these attachments will be formed with the mother. When maternal deprivation occurs, these children are denied that bond. These children often suffer a host of ill effects, including poor appetite and delayed emotional and intellectual development. As teenagers and adults, these individuals can be more aggressive, less able to display emotion, and more prone to depression.

In the field of child development, many believe that the importance of the mother cannot be overstated. John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst specializing in child development, made the topic of maternal deprivation his life’s work. His results, often called Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, give many insights on the effects of emotional separation between mother and child.

Bowlby identified the first two years of a child’s life as the most critical time for bonding. He hypothesized that maternal deprivation during this period may result in psychological damages that are both broad and irreversible. As many aspects of a child’s personality, including the ability to relate to others, are established by the age of three, Bowlby presumed that the primary caregiver during these years acts as a model for these traits. Children who are denied maternal affection, he claimed, often become incapable of showing empathy or affection in adult relationships.


Since Bowlby’s work, the definition of maternal deprivation has grown to include not only maternal absence but also ineffective maternal response. Children who are cared for physically but lack social interaction and physical contact with their primary caregiver often exhibit many of the same symptoms as children who have been denied contact altogether. In short, a mother not only needs to be present, but she needs to be appropriately involved.

Failure to thrive is frequently attributed to this style of detached parenting. In infants, any example of the condition that is not linked to specific health issues is generally considered to be caused by maternal deprivation. Children who have been diagnosed with failure to thrive are often smaller than other children their age. Often, they reach cognitive and emotional milestones later than others and exhibit difficulty in social situations.

Several conditions seem to increase the chances of maternal deprivation. Very young mothers, for example, can lack the emotional maturity needed to encourage healthy bonding. Postpartum depression is a major factor in many instances of detached parenting, as it mutes a mother’s ability to develop a bond with her child. In addition, some mothers who were raised in abusive or neglectful homes suffer from the lack of appropriate parenting role models.


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