A Flash Back on Bonding to Babies

Young families with small babies would look at me in great surprise and distrust 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, but if the children were insecure, they would certainly suffer from the way they were treated. The great 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 the mothers after the 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 the timing was disrupted. A nurse would watch and maybe press the baby’s head on to the mother’s breast in the meaning 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 still hear her telling us that she was met by the staff overhearing their conversation:

    ” 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 fear of infections was a considerable threat. I don’t think it was regarded a risk that mothers and babies were separated. At the same time psychologist Bowlby found, from studies on orphans, after the World War II that the children who just got their basic needs met, though without enough human contact, still died at a high rate due to deprivation.

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 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 years the 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 and took steps to make sure they were not separated. As I said in the start, I am sure parents always have had an intuitive knowledge on how to keep right and loving contact with their child, but much damage in the bonding has lifelong consequences for the emotional development and self-image. I have myself suffered a lot from insecurity on school excursions and 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

I worked as a staff nurse at a children’s hospital in the late seventies. Sometimes children were hospitalised for long periods of time due to problems with digestion or enteritis. It was seen that the mothers just abandoned the child. He or she became the favourite of different nurses with not much hope 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 felt so strongly that it was wrong, but alone I could not sit with each little baby. I later enjoyed the new teaching at my education to become a health visitor, because it was now common sense that you don’t separate baby and mother and you give the baby the physical contact while feeding. An important 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 true 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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