We have undertaken a research project whereby we are studying immediate post-partum mother-newborn interactions further to relate them to what we conceptualize as the setting up of a personal relationship and affectional-cognitive bond.
In order to attain this goal, we have adopted the following methodology:
1. We contact would-be mothers during the last quarter of pregnancy first to obtain their consent to, and cooperation with, our study, and so reach an agreement on our observation procedures.
2. Since we cannot possibly do without teamwork here, we must count on the obstetrician's cooperation, as well as with the maternity authorities and medical and paramedical staff involved in the management of delivery.
3. A strict rooming-in setting must be set up.
4. Neonatal routines, such as bathing, nasal aspiration, probing esophageal atresia and imperforate anal membrane must be dispensed with.
5. Immediate skin-to-skin contact between newborn and mother as soon as the baby has emerged from the maternal birth canal.
6. Videofilm immediate postpartum mother-infant interactions for at least 1 hour.
7. Follow-up during the first year of life.
8. Strange Situation test at 12 months of age.
Reading Bowlby's and Ainsworth's assertions about the onset of attachment behaviour, we learn that the average baby shows unmistakable signs of proximity-seeking behaviour towards a distinct, preferred figure -generally called his mother- not before he is 6 months old. This delay they attribute to the young infant's lack of capacity to "remember" his mother, or in Piagietian terms, of lack of object permanence.
You have surely heard of P.P.G.Bateson's (1979) studies on 'sensitive periods' on animal species other than human. Following Bateson, Bowlby (1982) speculates on the issue of a sensitive period (i.e., a crucial, short period during which the individual learns a behaviour or a string of behaviours at a very quick rate) for attachment behaviour and refers to it generally as 'the precursors of attachment' during the first 6 months of life.
Now Daniel Stern (1985) has renewedly taken up the subject in his book 'The Interpersonal World of the Infant' where he elaborates on the first stage of the senses of self which he calls the stage of the 'Emergent Self'. We deem Stern's ideas about the emergent self contradictory with his own proposition that humans are social as from birth, and hence already manage the ability of intersubjective communication, which he claims, emerges at a much later stage in development.
We believe -and that is what we are trying to show in our study- that the newborn actively seeks interpersonal, intersubjective, contact with his mother immediately after delivery. Moreover, and more importantly, our observations lead us to believe that the launching of this social connection is the only activity the newborn is specifically interested in.
We are addressing what has typically been referred to as the period of "Alert Inactivity" of the newborn, which many Early Developmentalists have observed and reported, and which has, up to now, been said to last at most 1 hour. This period we think is the sensitive period for the installation of a personal relationship with the baby's mother. It is our thesis that curtailment of this period by early separation or by lack of mother-infant connection retards the onset of overly proximity-seeking behaviour, and the setting up of an affectional-cognitive bond for at least 6 months, thereby paving the way for the increasing risk of "insecure attachments".
Carefully examining our videofilms -currently only 10, our aim being a sample of 30 dyads- and also drawing on our own personal observations, we have so far found the following common features:
1. Right after mother and newborn have attained a comfortable posture, whereby mother can cuddle her baby and engage in eye-to-eye contact, either breaking off eye or skin contact or both, plunges the baby into distress: s/he bursts into tears.
2. Restoring contact drives the baby back into calmness.
3. Eye contact turns out to be keenly accurate with a seemingly high image resolution. (At the baby's focal distance: 25-30 cm. Newborns are extremely myopic). Mothers who will only slightly avert full eye contact invariably make the baby burst into tears. Moreover, the baby shows unmistakable signs of placidness if, and only if, they stare into each other's pupils. Slow-motion playbacks have shown that minimal deviations of the mother's gaze bring about a certain degree of distress.
4. Once these basic contacts are attained, mothers usually feel prone to stimulate their babies by stroking their foreheads and their cheeks, and talking to them in high-pitch tones. Usually, whispering elicits no response from the baby, but talking rather loudly, in a conspicuously merry enthusiastic mood elicits the first newborn's smiles. (Watching successive stills from the video shows the baby displays a full, symmetrical smile).
5. This usually triggers a positive feedback spiral which leads the dyad to intense, frequent interchanges of mostly facial expressions: more smiles, gesturing, mimicking, vocalizations, grinning, rooting, cooing, frowning, eyebrow-raising, and other eyebrow movements, eyelid-playing, head movements as if playing hide-and-seek, pouting, thumb and nipple sucking, rubbing, whole-body shaking, eye-contacting, eye-averting and eye-recontacting, tensing and relaxing hand, legs and whole body, and so on.
6. Curiously, bright lights, loud strident noises, voices, even unmitigated screams emanating from the environment seem to have little or no impact on these early interactions.
7. If interactions are allowed to go on uninterruptedly in a comfortable environment, they may last far beyond the so-called normal period of "alert inactivity", as this phenomenon has been misnamed.
8. If rooming-in conditions are fully respected, mother-infant interactions terminate when the baby finally falls fast asleep.
The longitudinal study underway aims at showing significant differences regarding the way mother-infant relationships proceed in dyads which have been separated right after birth and the impact this procedure has on the 4 quarters of the first year of life.
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