The professor of perinatal psychobiology at Imperial College, London tells us how our understanding of fetal development and the importance of mother-child bonding has changed in recent decades
Tell me about Deborah Blum’s book.
This centres round the work of Harry Harlow who worked with monkeys and needed to breed more of them. He isolated them very early and took them away from their mothers and kept them clean and well-fed. They were fat and appeared healthy but they were miserable and rocked backwards and forwards. He started to understand that what was missing was maternal affection. This was very out of the current climate of the time. For example, Blum describes an American pamphlet distributed widely between 1914 and 1925 called Raising a baby the Government Way. It included the advice “never kiss a baby” and “parents should not play with the baby”. The influential psychologist Watson stated “When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument”. This is a good description of how attitudes have changed and I was stimulated by someone working in the same lab, Mary Schneider, who noticed that if you stress pregnant monkeys the babies are more anxious. This is a beautiful model of the effects of pre-natal stress.
The book describes how Harlow, in his studies of monkeys, helped to change attitudes to child care. He found how baby monkeys clung to a cloth model monkey rather than a wire one, and then went on the develop a scientific study of mothering and affection, and how important this is for the development of the child. The book also explains some of the more recent work that has arisen out of all this, and how we are now starting to understand how more sensitive mothering can affect the structure of the baby’s brain for life, and have long tem effects on behaviour.
Tell me about The Social Baby