The pseudoscience of bonding and the effort to control women

16502138 - abstract word cloud for pseudoscience with related tags and terms

Nearly everything you think you know about mother-infant bonding is untrue … and that’s not an accident.

Where did the pseudoscientific beliefs about bonding come from and why did they appear when they did? It wasn’t because we were experiencing an epidemic of unbonded children. Why have pseudoscientific beliefs been maintained for the past generation? It isn’t because they have led to any improvement in the mental health of children. What’s really going on?

Bonding pseudoscience isn’t about what infants need; it is a way of controlling maternal behavior.

It has been 25 years since Diane Eyer wrote the paper (and then the book) Mother-Infant Bonding: A Science Fiction:

A study of the research on postpartum mother-infant bonding shows that results from poorly constructed research programs were published in major journals and became a part of hospital policy because the bonding concept was politically useful in the struggle between advocates of natural childbirth and managers of the medical model of birth. The concept was also uncritically accepted because it was consistent with a longstanding ideology of motherhood that sees women as the prime architects of their children’s personalities.

Contemporary notions of bonding are less than 50 years old, but they were eagerly adopted by those who saw them as politically useful.

…[B]onding had become extremely popular in the mid 1970s primarily because of its usefulness in the political struggle between the natural childbirth movement and hospital obstetrics. The bonding imperative appeared to give women more control over their birth experience, appeared to be part of a more natural birth, and allowed them to have their infants and family with them in what had previously been a lonely and often demeaning experience.

Bonding pseudoscience serves the same purpose for natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates as climate pseudoscience serves for big business and evolution pseudoscience serves for religious fundamentalists. It offers an opportunity for believers to force their beliefs on others.

Bonding is still widely believed to be an established rule for governing the mother’s behavior… [T]he concept has continued to flourish (in varying forms) as part of the ideology in which women’s constant proximity to their infants (whether they desire it or not) is seen as a formula for preventing later problems of the child.

The seminal research on bonding was conducted by Klaus and Kennel who analogized women to goats, cows and sheep. Their research methodology was deeply flawed:

… Kennell and Klaus studied the “bonding” of 28 low-income, predominantly black, unmarried primiparae (first-time mothers) of normal birth weight babies…

After one month, the mothers returned to the hospital for interviews and observations. One of the interview questions related to the assessment of their “caretaking” was: “When the baby cries and has been fed, and the diapers are dry, what do you do?” On a scale of 0 to 3, 0 was given for letting the baby cry it out and 3 for picking it up every time. Another interview question was: “Have you been out since the baby was born, and who sat?” A score of 0 was given if the mother had been out, felt good, and did not think about the infant while she was out and a score of 3 was given if she did not leave the baby or if she did go out but thought constantly about the baby. More of the extended-contact mothers reported picking up the baby when it cried and not wanting to leave the baby. The researchers evaluated this finding as evidence of stronger mother-infant bonding in the group that held their babies for 16 extra hours.

There is so much wrong with this study that it’s difficult to know where to begin:

First is the question of the degree to which many of these dependent variables, such as letting the baby “cry it out” or not going out without thinking about the baby, are actually valid measures of caretaking. The woman who can’t leave her baby might be anxious or might not have anyone to leave the baby with. The woman who is able to forget about the baby when she goes out might have a trusted baby- sitter or might be self-assured and highly competent. “Standing near the examining table” during the pediatric exam could be an indication of anxiety or attitudes toward medical authority, or it could result from the different treatment of the experimental group—mothers might be less shy with doctors and nurses who witnessed their holding the babies during the extra contact treatment…

No matter. The concept of bonding was seized upon as a tool in the ongoing effort of natural childbirth advocates to pressure obstetricians.

Lamaze instructors adopted the term, and the reform-minded obstetrician, who became aware of the bonding concept in 1976 with the publication of Klaus and Kennell’s book, claims that he was delighted to have a scientific reason to back up what he already wanted to do.

It is similarly used to this day and has been enthusiastically adopted by lactation professionals for the same reason. No one seems to care that there was no evidence that medicated birth or formula feeding had produced an epidemic of unbonded children; similarly, no one seems to care that increasing rates of unmedicated birth and breastfeeding have failed to improve any mental health parameters of children.

Perhaps even more important is the way that the pseudoscience of bonding confirms misogynistic beliefs about how women ought to behave:

Perhaps the most profound influence of all on the construction and acceptance of bonding was a deeply embedded ideology regarding the proper role of women and the political need to retain at least something of that ideology in the face of the feminist challenges of the 1970s and the continuing migration of women into the labor market…

Bonding pseudoscience isn’t about what infants need; it is a way of controlling maternal behavior.

The belief that infants and children are so profoundly shaped by their own mothers that a few hours of contact with them could inoculate them from harm, even enhance their lives for years to come, would seem to border on magical thinking. Yet the idea was readily embraced as a scientific truth because it fit so perfectly with presuppositions about women and infants that have been socially constructed over the course of a century and a half and were threatening to come undone.

None of that would matter except for the fact that bonding pseudoscience is actively harming women:

Bonding is an impossible standard to adhere to. Locking women into such standards and then blaming them for failing to conform is an emotional drain not only on women, but on the entire family…

[C]onceiving of women as unthinking automatons, the prime architects of their children’s fate, blinds us to the real causes of the problems of children, not to mention women, such as poverty and social isolation.

The bottom line is that most of what passes for conventional wisdom about mother-infant bonding is pseudoscience in the service of misogynistic cultural aims. It doesn’t benefit babies and it harms mothers.

  • StephanieJR

    I’ve said it before, and I say it again, but humans are amazingly good at bonding with just about anything, including inanimate objects that don’t have any emotions. Wasn’t it earlier this year that the robot explorer on Mars shut down, and the internet collectively lost its shit over it? We feel empathy for things that aren’t even alive. Bonding with your child is as simple as loving them and taking care of them, but not to the point where you don’t take care of yourself, particularly your mental health. Save the sleepless nights for actual emergencies.

    • MaineJen

      “Wilson!!”

      • Empliau

        His wife’s name is Rita Wilson. I’ve often wondered if that gave extra intensity to his performance (my daughter still says that the scene of calling for the lost Wilson has scarred her for life).

      • KQ Not Signed In

        That’s our last name and we yell that across the house in total anguish to get each others’ attention…

  • rational thinker

    It is crap like this that puts more pressure on women to be a perfect mom that probably leads to more cases of PPD, postpartum psycosis,and shaken baby syndrome. The best advice for new moms in my opinion would be make sure you can get out of the house a few times a week without baby, and if you have a partner have them take over for at least 30 min a day, and if you are stressed out and can’t get baby to stop crying just put the baby in the crib or other safe spot and leave the room for 5 min.

  • Cartman36

    I guess I would have gotten a 0 since I went out when my first was less than a week old for sushi and wine while baby stayed home with my mother in law and a bunch of ready to feed formula. I didn’t think about baby too much since I trusted that Grandma could take care of him. Oh the horror!

    • Allison

      Almost like Grandma successfully raised the child’s other parent to adulthood!

      • Cartman36

        Exactly

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    “When the baby cries and has been fed, and the diapers are dry, what do you do?” On a scale of 0 to 3, 0 was given for letting the baby cry it out and 3 for picking it up every time.

    Where is the “Go out and smoke a cigarette and let someone else give it a try” option? Oh wait, the mother is solely responsible for soothing a crying baby.

    • FormerPhysicist

      Or for discovering that your baby doesn’t actually want to be picked up every time? Some kids do better with a bit of CIO to go to sleep. That’s not neglect.

      • guest

        This.

        My first child was miserable being held or rocked when she was tired. All she wanted was to have some quiet space to put herself to sleep. Depending on her mood, this might involving happily babbling to herself for a few minutes, or it might involve crying to herself for a few minutes. Either way, she didn’t want us interfering.

        • Mel

          My son’s the same. He’d sleep on my chest while he was in the NICU. Once he was home, being in my arms was a great reason for him to stay awake. I’ll never forget when he was around 4 months old and crabby. I thought he might need to go down for a nap a bit early and I put him in his bassinet. When I put him down, he sighed deeply and wiggled happily.

          I think he’s genuinely an introvert and he needed Spawn time just like the rest of us need alone time.

          • mabelcruet

            I completely empathise with him! I’m an introvert-I can quite happily give a lecture to 300 people, but ask me to join a dinner party for 6 where I have to interact on a personal level gives me palpable anxiety. After a day at work with other people, I have to recharge in total peace, quiet and solitude for an hour or two afterwards. I like people, I like meeting friends, it’s just I just find it draining. Extroverts are the opposite-they get charged up spending time with others.

          • sdsures

            #TeamIntrovert here, too.

          • mabelcruet

            There’s a lot of us around! Whenever I say I’m an introvert, people respond ‘But you’re really easy to get on with’, but it’s nothing to do with friendliness or socialising, it’s how you feel after a period of socialising in the company of others. I have a limited amount of socialising energy available (except for cats, cats are easy to socialise with)

        • sdsures

          When my niece and nephew (twins) were babies, you could hear them nattering to each other on the baby monitors AFTER mom or dad had left the room for bedtime.

    • EllenL

      How about, put the baby in the car seat and drive around the neighborhood until she falls asleep? Is that bonding?

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Bonus if you get a yummy beverage at Starbucks/McDonald’s/wherever en route. 😀
        (I remember several car rides where the toddler, who’d given up official naps at barely 2 years old, and the baby both crashed out hard enough that I could get a coffee, turn on *my* music, and just drive for a while as they slept. Good times, I say quite seriously. Made me feel human to drink coffee uninterrupted and listen to music that made me feel happy!)

        • alongpursuit

          Good tips!

        • KQ Not Signed In

          I suddenly and vividly remembered driving my fussy baby around until he fell asleep, and then sitting in the quiet car listening to the radio and sipping coffee and watching the rain. It was such a peaceful, beautiful little break.

    • alongpursuit

      Just like my toddler wants dada a lot of the time, I think when she was a newborn she sometimes wanted to be against her daddy’s chest because he was warmer and flatter — plus he bounced her differently. That must only be a good thing, right? Bonded to *both* parents? Plus no one person is a bottomless source of comfort for anyone… you need to recharge before you can give comfort sometimes.

      • Griffin

        Ten years ago, I read an article by a feminist journalist where she said that the only thing a man cannot give his child is a soft warm smooth chest to snuggle on. I was a bit gobsmacked about this, especially its source. My kids never showed a preference for my squishy bosom over my husband’s delightfully hairy muscular one. I was even more gobsmacked when I casually mentioned my surprise to my gaggle of feminist career-women friends at the pub one day, and they all agreed with … the journalist! Except for one, who didn’t have kids and had never thought about it. I realized then that sexism goes both ways sometimes, to the detriment of all, including the kids.