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.