Maternal Separation

September 17, 2011

Close proximity of a mother to her infant or child is necessary for survival in humans and other mammals. The close contact promotes emotional attachment and helps to provide food, comfort, and safety. Maternal separation is just as important as close contact for the development of individuality and continued growth of the mother-child relationship. Separations that are relatively brief and consistent lead to healthy development of the mother-child relationship. A total lack of separation between the mother and child does not allow for growth and may lead to problems with separation in the future. Separations that are prolonged and/or inconsistent, without other means of comfort, may contribute to relationship problems, distress, illness, anxiety disorders, and/or attachment disorders.

Maternal separation from the neonate, infant, or child may produce stress and anxiety for both individuals. Timing, frequency, and duration of separation all contribute to the degree of stress experienced by the mother-child dyad. There is evidence that immediately after birth infants respond to and prefer the sound of their mothers’ voice over that of others. This indicates that infants listen and respond to the sound of their mothers’ voice before birth. Newborns also prefer the scent of their own mothers’ breast milk. This evidence suggests that newborns know their mothers at birth, therefore, separation from the familiarity of their mothers may be quite stressful. In fact, animal research examining behavioral and physiological reactivity to stress often involves separation of the mother and infant to induce a stressful situation.

It is ideal for a mother and infant to attain close physical contact immediately after birth to enhance and strengthen their relationship. However, it is not critical, as was once thought, that the “bonding” between mother and child happen within a given time frame. Emotional attachment is a process that occurs over time. Women who have complications after delivery, or have newborns who are too ill for interaction, have been able to develop an emotional attachment with their infants similar to mothers who held and interacted with their infants within the first hours after birth. In most circumstances, separation from the newborn can lead to maternal anxiety even if the mother has not yet seen her infant.

Maternal separation anxiety may occur in the natural process of physical separation. It can be evident during the first separation or during significant changes in the relationship that involve separation. The anxiety may be transient and an expected reaction to the separation or it can lead to significant distress, indicating that an anxiety disorder may be present.

Anxiety and stress for the infant increases with age during the first year of life. Between 9 and 12 months of age, infants become more aware that they are separate individuals from their mothers. This can lead to separation anxiety in varying degrees. Consistent return of mother after separation enhances the attachment relationship and contributes to further growth. A mother and her child are continually presented with challenges during separations at each developmental milestone: a toddler spending the first day in preschool, a 5-year-old going to kindergarten, an 8-year-old spending the first night away from home, or even an 18-year-old headed off to college. Separation at any developmental age contributes to feelings of anxiety initially; however, successful separation leads to a sense of accomplishment for both the child and the mother.

SEE ALSO: Anxiety disorders, Child care

Suggested Reading

  • Feldman, R., Weller, A., et al. (1999). The nature of the mother’s tie to her infant: Maternal bonding under conditions of proximity, separation, and potential loss. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(6), 929-939.
  • Hock, E., & Schirtzinger, M. B. (1992). Maternal separation anxiety: Its developmental course and relation to maternal mental health. Child Development, 63(1), 93-102.
  • Lamb, M. E. (1982). Early contact and maternal-infant bonding: One decade later. Pediatrics, 70(5), 763-768.
  • Mertin, P. G. (1986). Maternal-infant attachment: A developmental perspective. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 26(44), 280-283.
  • Stanton, M. E., & Levine, S. (1985). Brief separation elevates cortisol in mother and infant squirrel monkeys. Physiology and Behavior, 34(6), 1007-1008.


  • Maternal Separation Anxiety

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