A Flash Back on Bonding to Babies

New parents would look at me in great surprise if I told them how mothers and their new-born children were treated at hospitals some 50-60 years ago.


Parents have always had the natural ability to bond with their baby whatever the circumstances were. If the children were insecure, they would undoubtedly suffer from the way they were treated. The high focus on hygiene meant that the nurses and doctors had the right to rule. The babies were put to sleep in big rooms away from their mothers after birth. The staff brought the babies to their mothers so they could be breastfed every fourth hour. The poor mothers hardly knew their babies. They would have the pain from the newly produced milk that would swell up and come out with difficulty. Both the baby and mother would cry because of the disrupted timing.

A nurse would watch and press the baby’s head on to the mother’s breast in an intention to help. Many mothers gave up breastfeeding and had to feed the baby with a mixture of cow milk, boiled water and sugar. My mother managed to breastfeed her twins. We were born two months too early and put in an incubator. I remember her telling us that she overheard the conversation of the staff:

    “Here comes that mother again”.

After eight to ten days she was discharged and only supposed to bring her milk to us, but had otherwise nothing to do with us. The conviction was that the staff was more suitable for caring for the new-born babies. The use of antibiotics was still entirely new, and the fear of infections was a considerable threat. I don’t think it was regarded as a risk that mothers and babies were separated.

After WWII, psychologist Bowlby found that orphaned babies after having their basic needs met still died when deprived of human contact.

War memorial from Liverpool Street Station in London.

War memorial from Liverpool Street Station in London.

In Denmark and Sweden, we received many Finnish children during WWII. They had to be evacuated to save their lives. The war was raging in Finland and hunger was a massive problem like in many other places. We then thought that the children enjoyed the trip like a holiday, but the picture here shows the deep sorrow of the loss of parents. After some time they had lost their Finnish language and many never found calm here or at home.

Small Finnish children on their arrival to Denmark during the war. The loss of their mothers is seen in their eyes.


Small Finnish children on their arrival to Denmark during the war

It took another thirty years before hospitals in the Western world changed their policy in favour of mother and child bonding.

They finally took steps to make sure they were not separated.

Parents always have had an intuitive knowledge of how to keep right and loving contact with their child.

Much damage in the bonding has lifelong consequences for emotional development and self-image. I have myself suffered a lot from insecurity on school excursions summer camps. I felt confused when my mother was not there, or the daily routine was new. On one occasion I just couldn’t eat during the week I had to stay at the summer camp. My parents were convinced that I would cope with the situation. Nobody had told them of the consequences of being separated at a very early age.

My mother with her twins in Copenhagen

My mother with her twins in Copenhagen

In the late seventies, I worked as a staff nurse at the same children’s hospital where we had been. Sometimes children were hospitalised for long periods due to problems with digestion or enteritis. Sometimes mothers just abandoned the child. He or she became the favourite of different nurses for a time with difficulties to bond with anybody for life. Sure it creates shallow personalities. No one overthought about it. The babies were given their bottles with milk in their beds and laid so that they could manage their feeding themselves. I strongly felt that it was wrong, but alone I could not sit with each little baby. I later enjoyed this new teaching at my becoming a health visitor.

It was now common sense that you don’t separate baby and mother and you give the baby the physical contact while feeding. A prominent psychotherapist and paediatrician were Winnicott from London. Jennifer Kunst writes about him in her blog: In Search of the “Good Enough Mother” Donald Winnicott (1896-1971).

In the nineties, I had the privilege to travel to Russia a few times, and I met families who were treated like we were many years before. The nurses had the full charge over the new-born or the hospitalised. There was an enormous focus on diagnoses which seemed wrong to me. I was told a few times that perfectly thriving babies were diagnosed with “brain damage”. I somehow tried to convince the parents that it couldn’t be right at all!

Trying to carry out new knowledge, we sometimes lose something valuable. Here in Denmark, the mothers are expected to go home a few hours after the birth when it’s without complications. That means that the art of breastfeeding is the responsibility of the parents. Much can quickly go wrong when you don’t have professional help besides you when it’s needed.

A good start is so important so that both mother and child know that breastfeeding going to work out fine without a lot of pain. The feeling of belonging to each other is established.


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