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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who Can Pick Up the Baby? Or, If It Doesn't Walk Like a Duck, It Won't Imprint Like a Duck

A recent phone call reminded me how easy it is for a little learning to be a dangerous thing--   or, to be more specific, how easy it is even for highly educated people with backgrounds in the social sciences to get confused about attachment and bonding.

Here’s the story. A friend of mine was calling to tell me about the adventures of another friend, just recently a grandmother for the first time. New Grandma had been asked by her daughter to come and “help out” after the baby was born, and she had traveled some distance for that purpose. But New Grandma now discovered that there was a rule about the baby that she was not to break: he was to be picked up only by his mother or father. That rule was planned to last until the baby was about two months old and had “settled”; then others could pick him up. New Grandma found this situation not only frustrating but deeply puzzling. What could the new parents be thinking?

I’m not in touch with the new parents, nor is my crystal ball functioning well in this hot weather, so of course I don’t know exactly what’s going on. But I’m going to hazard some guesses about the beliefs the “rule” could be based on.

My first guess is that the rule is focused on the baby’s relationships with other people. It’s not just about health and safety--  if it were, the parents might refuse to let strangers touch the baby, and be concerned about anyone who is careless or inexperienced with little ones, but not prohibit other contacts. The parents believe, not foolishly, that there is something special about the relationships between the parents and the baby.

My second guess is that the parents believe that a baby of less than two months old is forming a special kind of relationship to the parents called “attachment”, a powerful developmental phenomenon that is thought to determine some aspects of later behavior, thinking, and emotion about relationships. While it would be harsh to call this belief foolish, in fact it is not an accurate understanding of early emotional development. Babies of less than two months--  actually, of less than 6 or 7 months--  do not  behave in ways that suggest the formation of attachment to familiar people. They may seem more comfortable in the care of people who know them well, but this is probably because the people who are familiar to the baby are also familiar with the baby and know how he or she responds to handling. If the parents are worried that the baby will not form attachments to them, they should actually be more concerned about social interactions when the baby is older and closer to the age when attachment usually becomes evident--  a baby who has not “settled” is nowhere near that age.

Of course, although the young baby is not yet forming attachment relationships, his or her caregivers are experiencing “bonding”, a change in their feelings, rather like falling in love, in which they become preoccupied with the baby and even forget their own personal concerns in favor of worrying about the baby’s needs. Just as lovers often imagine that their feelings are mirror images of each other’s, parents can easily feel that the baby is as concerned about them as they are about her--  although all the evidence is against this idea. Parents do need to interact with the baby in order for bonding to progress, so a rule forbidding others to care for the baby might help them bond if there were any difficulty in this (which there usually is not if everybody is healthy). Even then, there would be no reason why New Grandma or others should not occasionally have some baby time, as long as all was going well with the parents and their attitudes toward the baby.

One more guess to hazard: why are the parents so concerned about this early time period? I think this may be because much of the early discussion of attachment by the British psychiatrist John Bowlby was connected in some ways to the work of ethologists like Konrad Lorenz on the behavior of young birds toward a parent bird. Anyone who has done an introductory psychology course is likely to remember the famous picture of Lorenz walking in a crouch across a field, followed by a little crowd of ducklings. Lorenz’s work examined the phenomenon of “imprinting” (the behavioral, not the genetic kind), in which ducks and some other birds learn rapidly to prefer and follow the first moving object they see after they hatch. In the wild, this is likely to be their mother, but it could be a fox---  and in captivity it could be another duck, a toy train, or Konrad Lorenz. Imprinting learning occurs within a critical time period of a couple of days after hatching and is impossible after that time has passed. Imprinting is also extremely powerful and long-lasting, and affects not only the entity that the ducklings follow in early life, but also their choice of mates in adulthood. In zoos, bird caregivers who are hoping to breed more birds must be careful not to let the young birds see them, or the adult birds will later refuse to mate with members of their own species and instead try to court human beings.

Although one of the indications of attachment of a baby to an adult is that the baby tries to follow and stay near the adult—a situation similar to the results of imprinting--  there are very few other resemblances between the two phenomena. (And, by the way, not all birds imprint, and few mammals do.) While some have argued that there is a critical period for attachment, the ability of orphaned children to develop new attachments later contradicts this, and in any case it is clear that such a period does not occur in the earliest months of the baby’s life. Babies may be “ducky”, but they aren’t ducks.

Nevertheless, the young parents in question, like many other people who know a little about this, may well have confused human attachment with duck imprinting and developed some unnecessary worries about how they should regulate their child’s social interactions with other people in order to have a good developmental outcome. The result is a family fuss that need not have happened, and a situation where they do not get the help and social support that they could probably use just now. However, I want to point out that unless the parents are too exhausted to do their jobs, it’s not going to make any difference to the baby--- and New Grandma can develop an excellent relationship with him in times to come. All the same, it’s a shame that this confusion exists.


  1. In adoption, new parents are often told that they should be the only ones meeting their children's needs, whether that child is a newborn, a toddler, or an older child. I think there may be some merit to the toddlers and older children only have their parents care for them, but it always seemed overkill to say that the newborn would have an easier time bonding if parents were the only ones to hold the baby.
    We rejected that advice.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Robyn-- it's good to hear that common sense prevailed-- but let's keep in mind that the baby is not bonding, then or ever. The parents do the bonding, the baby later attaches. It's a dance where parents and children do different steps.

    By the way, adoptive parents are sometimes told that they must not let the child meet its own needs or act independent in any way. This belief is probably related to the misunderstanding about bonding and attachment, and it's connected with the "cupboard love" theory of attachment based on feeding. In either case, these ideas are mistakes-- but when I say that, I'm not advocating adopting and sending the little ones to day care at once, either.

  3. Thanks for the article Jean Mercer

    When adopting my one year old daughter I received similar 'don't let others hold the baby', advice in online groups and articles. My daughter was quite gregarious and the family all wanted to hold and play with the sweet smiling toddler, so ultimately I didn't have the heart to follow that advice. But it was something to feel anxious about.

    I also read the advice about not letting other's feed or water (hummm, I mean give a bottle to :) your newly adopted child. I did hand feed my daughter and hold her bottle for a while, mostly because her coordination wasn't quite there yet. But struggling with a child over feeding is not my style, so things quickly became a cuddle during bedtime milk instead of my feeding her.

    It was quite a different experience with my son, who we adopted at age 2. For a number of months he was suspicious of most people besides me. He did not want to be held my anyone else, he didn't want to be put to bed by anyone else, or feed. Since I wasn't working, I did what I could to meet his preferences, outside a weeks travel due to my father's illness. His velcro tendencies lasted for a few months, then gradually faded away. He is slightly more reserved with new people than my daughter now, but not to a remarkable degree.

    My personal experience, I think bonding and attachment are both important in that time after toddler adoption, but it's important to be flexible and find those things you both enjoy to bond/attach over. Clapping games, music, bubbles, bathtime, whatever. It's less stressful if you don't feel you have to force the experience into the perfect post adoption "attachment" regiment.

  4. I think you've made some very important points, MinM-- children of different ages are different, and individuals are different. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that you should NOT be the only one to care for a child who wants that, just that there's no magic in ritually preventing others from doing any care.

    I like your take on attachment as involving activities that are naturally pleasurable for the child and the adult(s). Those will be different for different people in different families. They can involve feeding, they can involve "eye contact"-- but they don't have to.

  5. Thanks for responding to my comment, Jean Mercer. I didn't mean to imply that you were suggesting not being the only one to care for a child. I didn't get that from your article

    I think my comment was responding to the two prevalent philosophies that I heard alot in the post adoption period. One is the attachment parenting philosophy which you seemed to be discussing.

    The other philosophy, which you were not discussing or recommending, is the...I'll call it the 'new teacher' philosophy. Based on the belief that a new teacher should be strict to start out, because if they are lax, the kids will go wild.

    The new teacher philosophy says that you need to set the rules at the beginning, otherwise the child will always be the way you allowed them to be in the month immediately following adoption . Ex: If you allow the child to be clingy now, they'll grow into a clingy child. If you allow them to eat a lot or be a picky eater immediately following adoption, they end up obese or a picky eater for life, etc.

    The 'new teacher' philosophy seems mostly recommended by the "old fashioned" set, like my mother in law. The attachment parenting recommended by the "current trends" set. A lot of us folks who just want to do a good job, but don't have a crystal ball get caught between the two philosophies. Ultimately many of us just end up in the "oh what the hell, whatever works" set. :)

  6. So easy to reduce some of these things to the absurd-- if they have milk as their total diet at age 3 months, does that mean they'll consume nothing else at age 14?

    People are still locked into the idea that experience is the only factor that causes developmental change. They forget about maturation and about events having different effects at different times. I guess this gives a sense of control-- but it shouldn't, because it doesn't work!