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Mother-child Interaction: The road to affectionate human relations

"Mother-child interaction" has been in the American vocabulary for quite some time now. It refers to the mother-child bonding process which occurs in childrearing, especially during infancy. This bonding process is understood to be brought about by the natural, moment to moment interaction between mother and child. The attachment of the child to the mother and the maternal caring for the child is a symbiotic process which is built over time through the many exchanges of the mother and child.

While the child is in the mother's womb, the umbilical cord plays a major role in connecting the mother and child so they function under one human system. However, upon the child's birth (technically, delivery), the mother and child become two individuals functioning under their own systems. Furthermore, through mother-child interactions, the mother and child bond emotionally and psychologically to form an attachment system, which can be considered one human system once again.

Even as the fetus is welcomed into the world as a newborn, s/he cannot function yet as a single individual. During the embryonal period, the mother and child, via the umbilical cord, are tied biologically and anatomically (e.g. nutrition and metabolism). However, upon the birth of the child, the mother and child bond through external exchanges of information and they are bound psychologically through their symbiotic relationship.

This concept was bourne in the 1960s, towards the end of the "golden age" in the United States, when the incidents of child abuse rose dramatically. Studies showed that many cases of abuse were often seen when the babies were born prematurely.

It is well known that premature babies must be incubated when they are born, preventing the mother and child from being together. This is speculated to be a significant cause of the cases of abuse seen in premature babies.

Drs. Claus and Kennell, American pediatricians in Cleveland, studied mother-child bonding by looking at two groups; one which held their babies directly after birth and another group which did not. They established that the mother-child interaction at the time of birth was a very important factor in the attachment process. It seems that the myth that the mother naturally feels affection and love for the child upon birth, was indeed a myth.

Twenty years ago, I chaired a Ministry of Health and Welfare study group which studied, not only mother-child interactions but also issues of childrearing. Based on its results, several new systems were introduced into the birthing process in hospitals. These include the mother and child residing in the same room (instead of the child being taken to a nursery), breastfeeding and other methods of perinatal care to increase the mother and child's opportunities to be together and form an attachment.

There are times when the mother is slightly disappointed when she sees her baby for the first time. This is because they tend to compare their babies to the cute babies in the advertisements for baby formula and diapers. In other cases, there are mothers who still are not convinced of their unexpected or unwanted pregnancy and are in a regretful state after giving birth. However, even these mothers have a strong tendency to form an attachment to their baby and have a loving mother-child interaction process. Moreover, the child is born with an emotional and physical "program" to react to this maternal caring and tenderness.

The child's first cry is not an indication of joy that s/he has come into this world. It is more of a cry for the need to be reassured after going through the difficulties of being born. The child often suffers during birth and is filled with anxiety as s/he separates him-/herself from the mother. Therefore, the child often stops crying when the mother or nurse holds him/her for the first time. This is representative of the fact that even the newborn has a program that tells him/her that skinship is a form of reassurance and love.

It is extremely important that we examine the meaning of the mother-child interaction on a broad level.

Firstly, this is the first step toward all other human relations that the child will encounter in life. Secondly, although the adult human is able to communicate through expression, movement, sound, language (written and spoken) or other signals, the baby's communication ability is limited to a few facial expressions, and the movements of the hands and feet. However, even in this limited capacity, the mother-child interaction is established. Thirdly, it is obvious that all types of human relations are based on a variety of interactions (e.g. teacher-student relationships). Hence, in order for subsequent interpersonal relationships to function smoothly, it is important for the child to have a solid foundation in the mother-child interaction process.

In the next few messages, I would like to explore the issue of the mother-child interaction from various perspectives.
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