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'Maternal Deprivation' Reassessed - The work of Professor Sir Michael Rutter

It was Dr John Bowlby (1951) who argued that infants form a special relationship with their mother, which is qualitatively different than any other.
Dr John Bowlby described this as the process of 'monotropy'. By a mechanism which he saw as very similar to imprinting, Dr John Bowlby considered that the young infant developed a

firm attachment to its mother within the first six months of life, and that if this attachment or bond was then broken the infant would suffer serious consequences.

Dr John Bowlby's work rapidly assumed a political dimension, as his arguments were seized by the post-war pressure groups, which argued that women should stay at home and look after children full-time. The reason why this had become a sensitive political issue was because at this time there were a large number of returning servicemen, and it was considered necessary that jobs should be freed for them. Since a large number of women had worked during the war and carried on working afterwards, some people argued that they should return to full-time child-care in the home, and free their jobs for the returning servicemen. 

Some of the returning servicemen included lawyers who later went on to become judges. For example Lord Donaldson who became Master of the Rolls, served with the Guards Armoured Divisional Signals in North-West Europe from 1942-45 and with the Military Government in Schleswig-Holstein before called to Bar, Middle Temple, 1946.

It is largely as a result of the work of Professor Sir Michael Rutter that it is generally accepted that the single concept of 'Maternal Deprivation' is misleading. 

Rutter also relied on the proofs of other researchers.

Newson (1974) argued that mothering skills are not in any way innate or instinctive.
Instead, they are skills, which are acquired through practice in communicating with that particular individual baby. As you get to know a baby, and see it as having human sensibilities and a 'personality', you also become more able to detect and understand that baby's responses. Babies, on their part, learn very fast, and respond more to those people who are sensitive to their actions. 

They are also, as Schaffer and Emerson (1964) showed, more likely to form attachments with people who respond sensitively to them. The implication here is that interacting with babies is a learned skill; and that fathers can acquire these skills just as mothers do, given motivation and opportunity.

The early study by Schaffer and Emerson also showed that infants could develop multiple attachments - several of the infants in their study were as attached to their fathers as to their mothers. Some, too, had developed an attachment to the father but not to the mother, even though it was the mother who was looking after them most of the time. In such cases, always, it was the father who responded most sensitively to the child. 

Parke and O'Leary (1976) observed mothers and fathers in a maternity ward. What they
found as that, contrary to the popular stereotypes, fathers tended to be very keen on interacting with their infants, and were neither inept or uninterested in their new-born children. Instead, they were often as sensitive in interacting with their infants as the mothers were.
Parke and Swain (1980) observed mothers and fathers each feeding their 3-month-old infants. They also found that the fathers responded just as sensitively to infant cues as the mothers did, responding in terms of both social interaction - conversational or gestural - and by adjusting the pace of feeding according to the signals being put out by the child. However, they did find that fathers tended to hand the responsibility for caretaking to their wives rather than adopting that responsibility themselves. The skills that fathers had in parenting became apparent only when they were asked to demonstrate how they would go about interacting with their children for the investigators: much of the time they did not seem to exercise these skills at home.

Nevertheless if Dr John Bowlby's theory does not 'work' for women then the same applies to men. Many campaigning fathers also believe that their children will suffer great damage if their 'natural bond' is broken. But in reality children do not suffer as a result of 'deprivation'.


Bowlby, J. (1951) Child care and the Growth of Love, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Clarke A.M. and Clarke A.D.B. (1976) Early Experience; Myth and Evidence, London, Open Books.
Goldfarb, W. (1943) Infant rearing and Problem Behaviour, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 13: 249-65.
Newson, J. (1974) Towards a theory of infant understanding, Bulletin of the British Psychological Society 27: 251-7
Parke, R.D. and O’Leary, S. (1976) Father-Mother infant interaction in the new born period: some findings, some observations and some unresolved issues. In: K. Riegel and J. Meacheam (eds) The Developing Individual in a Changing world, vol. 2 Social and Environmental Issues, The Hague: Mouton.
Parke, R. D. and Swain, D. B. (1980) The family in early infancy: social interactional and attitudinal analyses. In: F. A. Pederson (ed) The Father- Infant Relationship: Observational Studies in family Context, New York: Praeger.
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Power et al (1974) Delinquency and the family, British Journal of Social Work 4: 13-38.
Rutter et al (1976) Cycles of Disadvantage, Hinemann, London.
Rutter (1979) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed 1972-1978:New findings, New concepts, New approaches, Child Development 50: 283-305.
Rutter, M. (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Schaffer, H.R. and Emerson P.E. (1964) The development of social attachments in infancy, Monographs of Social Research in Child Development 29: no. 94.
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