COVID-19 and the medicalization of bonding

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Pregnant women and new mothers are terrified that they might pass COVID-19 to their infants. It’s a justified fear; if they are infected at the time of birth, they might need to be separated from their infants until they recover.

Sadly, pregnant women and new mothers have also been terrorized into believing that any separation from their infants will interfere with their ability to bond to the baby and the babies’ ability to bond to them. That fear is wholly UNjustified! Bonding is a natural process that happens spontaneously and does not require ritualized timed, time-sensitive behaviors.

Bonding happens naturally, spontaneously and does not require ritualized time-sensitive behaviors.

How ironic!

If there’s one thing that natural childbirth advocates are sure of, it’s that women and babies are “designed” for birth. It happens spontaneously and if they simply trust in the process, it will turn out fine.

If there’s one thing that lactivists are sure of, it’s that women and babies are “designed” for breastfeeding. It happens spontaneously and if they simply trust in the process, they will be able to nourish their babies completely.

If there’s one thing that attachment parenting advocates are sure of, it’s that bonding … DOESN’T happen spontaneously and requires elaborate rituals, timed and time-sensitive.

Ironically, given that attachment parenting is promoted as “natural,” the idea that maternal-infant attachment occurs naturally, that mother and child might love each other simply because they belong to each other, is rejected out of hand. Instead, ritualized practices must be employed, supervised by an army of experts including parenting gurus, midwives, and lactation consultants, among others.

As Charlotte Faircloth notes in the essay “The Problem of ‘Attachment’: the ‘Detached’ Parent” in the book Parenting Culture Studies:

It hardly seems controversial to say that, today, we have a cultural concern with how ‘attached’ parents are to their children. Midwives encourage mothers to try ‘skin-to-skin’ contact with their babies to improve ‘bonding’ after childbirth, a wealth of experts advocate ‘natural’ parenting styles which encourage ‘attachment’ with infants…

Previously a mother’s love for her child had been romanticized and ascribed to inherent characteristics of women, mother love has now been medicalized, requiring participation in rituals prescribed by experts.

As I’ve noted repeatedly over the years, attachment parenting is not based on Attachment Theory, which tells us that the “good enough” mother is all that any child needs. So where did it come from? It certainly did not come from an epidemic of “detached” children. Until recently it was accepted as obvious that children remained unattached only in the most severe cases of abuse and neglect.

It came not from the study of humans, but of non-primate animals. Animals like ducklings had been shown to “imprint” on whatever caretaker they saw first during an “attachment window.” Attachment parenting theorists simply extrapolated, theorizing that infants “bonded” to their mothers during an attachment window around birth.

Faircloth explains:

Initially, the focus was on the critical period immediately after birth, though this later expanded to the period around birth as a whole. The argument was that a child’s first hours, weeks, and months of life had a lasting impact on the entire course of the child’s development. Birth, in particular, was singled out as one of the ‘critical moments’ for bonding to take place. After birth, new mothers were told to look into the eyes of their infant, hold their naked child, preferably with skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeed for optimal bonding…

This belief is the result of medicalizing and pathologizing bonding.

…[C]oncern with detachment as part of a broader trend in the twentieth century towards the medicalization of parenthood: in particular, the medicalization of maternal emotion and mother love itself…

The truth is that bonding is not contingent and happens SPONTANEOUSLY over time (as any father or adoptive parent could tell you). It does not depend on a formalized set of behaviors; indeed, it has NOTHING to do with those behaviors at all (as anyone who has adopted a child beyond infancy can tell you).

Vitually all children will bond to their mothers in the absence of abuse or neglect. Indeed, three entire generations of Americans were raised by mothers who were unconscious at the moment of birth and didn’t see their babies for hours afterward. There is no evidence that maternal infant bonding was harmed in any way.

Unfortunately, attachment parenting advocates have medicalized and pathologized bonding. They promote a fear-based view, hinting at dire consequences if you don’t follow their advice. And that leads to a lot of unnecessary guilt on the part of mothers who did not or could not follow attachment parenting prescriptions.

There is NO EVIDENCE that immediate contact (let alone mandated periods of skin-to-skin contact) are necessary for bonding. That has always been true, but in the age of COVID-19 it is even more important to acknowledge that truth.

  • rational thinker

    This may be a very strange example even though the story both the book and the movie is totally fictional. A few months ago I watched the horror film “Rosemary’s baby”. The last time I saw it was over 20 years ago, since then I have had 2 children so I was able to see the film in a different light. I dont think of it as horror anymore I think of it as a story about a mothers love being an unbreakable bond.

    Rosemary had every reason not to bond with her baby she even thought of killing him. Then she saw her baby. After the shock wore off she heard him cry. She went to her baby and started rocking him and smiled like most new mothers do.
    She was unconscious when he was born so she missed that. She did not do skin to skin in the “golden hour”. In fact it was probable a few days or a week before she found out he was alive . It didn’t matter, she carried him for 9 months. She gave birth to him, She gave him life, he was her son that’s all that mattered despite who his father was.

    Bonding is not a checklist and these assholes need to realize that.

  • HailieJade

    One of the saddest outcomes I’ve noticed of this obsession with “bonding” via forced skin-to-skin, exclusive breastfeeding, baby wearing etc, is a general trend of anti-adoption sentiment that seems to be rising in society. They’ve both taken hold at roughly the same time and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

    Case in point: When I tell people I don’t want children, of course I’m rarely taken seriously (cos I’m a woman and ALL women want babies, amiright?? /s) I’m told I’ll regret it (eyeroll) and then I usually reply “Well, even if I do end up regretting it, I can always adopt a child” Cue the hysterical cries of “Oh noooo but it’s just not the same!! Don’t you want your OWN child?!” As if an adopted child wouldn’t be just as much “my child” as one I gave birth to.

    Honestly, it’s disgusting and the worst part is, the people who say these things don’t even seem to realise just how insulting and hurtful their comments are to adopted children and their parents. They’ve apparently been so brainwashed into believing that a baby is only “yours” if you pushed it out of your vagina that adopted children are actually viewed as somehow impossible to bond with and therefore “second best”. As if adopted kids don’t already have enough issues to deal with, imagine growing up reading nonsense like that on the internet!

    The natural childbirth movement is evil and leaves nothing but destruction and misery in its wake. It needs to die, now.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      I agree completely. Now, for the NCB movement, I think if you call them out on it and ask the question about adoptive parents, they will quickly dismiss it and uncomfortably change the subject. They just haven’t thought about the implications of their position.

      But you are correct about those you are addressing, and how their anti-adoption sentiment is blatant and deliberate.

      • HailieJade

        Yeah, their bigotry towards adopted children is on full display. But the thing is, because NCB is now apparently so ingrained in everyone’s subconscious as being the only “right” way to be a mother, they blurt this stuff out without even thinking twice about it. That’s what really gets me. NCB has created an entire class of people (adopted children and their parents) who it is suddenly ok to openly show disdain for. Whereas perhaps 20-30 years ago, they would’ve felt less comfortable saying such a thing (I’m only in my 30s now so I’m not really sure what it was like back then, but I know at one point it was pretty fashionable for celebrities to adopt. Now they’re all bragging about their unmedicated home births instead)

        I always call these people out on their BS and when I do it gets very awkward – similar to the reaction from NCB advocates – hasty denial (No no that’s not what I really meant!) and attempts to change the subject.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          No no that’s not what I really meant!

          Yep, as I said, they haven’t thought through the implications of their position. NCB and lactavists both have this issue.

          I mean, you would think when you get to the point of insisting that adoptive parents are expected to take lactation medications, you’d think that maybe it’s gone too far.

          • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

            uummmm, yeah relactaticing might be a bit problematic seeing as how (for instance) my parents could not adopt my brother until he had been their foster child for 7 years. And my grandmother never tried to adopt her foster daughters because she would have been refused due to her age. But I guess foster kids don’t matter to these morons and they figure foster kids are doomed to never be successful because they did not get the “perfect” start in life. That would be news to my brother the former Army medic(10th mountain division) and current respiratory therapist on the front lines of this pandemic.

          • kilda

            yeah, it would have been a bit awkward to try to breastfeed my 3 adopted kids, who came to us at ages 9, 10 and 12. Fortunately we seem to have managed to bond to each other anyway.

  • Montserrat Blanco

    I do agree that bonding does not require a particular skin to skin contact time. I had a 28-week preemie and I was possibly the 20th person to hold him, despite that he and I are really well attached and I have not felt lack of attachment at any point during our years together. He does come to our bed in case of a nightmare, looks to me or my husband for comfort when he is in pain or upset and Yes, in case of an emergency I do have clear preference of who is to be saved first. Having said that I think that some measurements taken in particular places for mothers with covid symptoms are extremely harsh. I am not an expert in covid but the scientific papers that I have read do not prove the case for a healthy term baby to be separated from all family members for weeks. I think that mothers that have tested positive should take precautions in order to do not infect their babies, until they get a negative test, but weeks of separation When the risk for infected healthy term babies is small, I see it harsh.

  • rational thinker

    I remember the exact moment I started bonding with my first child. It was when I was in the bathroom and a second line showed up on the stick.