Maternal separation

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Maternal separation is a separation of a child from its mother (or another closely attached caregiver). Separation often leads to separation anxiety and chronic stress. It has a powerful impact on the developing brain (see: Behavioral effects of maternal separation and early weaning). One of the key harms of early daycare stems from maternal separation (see: Daycare misery).


Seminal experiments on rhesus monkeys by Harry Harlow changed our thinking about maternal separation. The experiments were considered so cruel that they are no longer possible due to ethical considerations. We have known the dramatic effects of maternal separation since the 1950s (and earlier). However, to this day, there is a global rush to abandon kids to early daycare. As much as schooling, daycare has built up rich mythology of its own benefits. In reality, all forms of institutionalization harm children and make a dramatic negative imprint on society.

Maslov's hierarchy

Matthew Lieberman insists that we need to rethink Maslov's hierarchy when it comes to primate infants. While physical needs such as access to food form the bottom of the hierarchy, for an immature infant, the strongest assurance for meeting those needs is the primary caregiver. This is why maternal separation loads to social pain that amounts to mental torture. Few mothers would starve their children. However, many moms have been persuaded to give away their children to an institution. Even though, for an adult, it is easier to empathize with a starving child than with a child deprived of a motherly connection. Social pressures and social conditioning make moms commit the cruel act in deep belief that the separation actually benefits the child (see: Learning acceleration via stress). They commit the act even if all their instincts tell them that their crying child suffers substantial distress.

Postpartum separation

Decades ago, it was not unusual to separate the mother and a child right after birth. In a typical human effort to "improve upon nature", the idea was to help the mom heal, and let the child receive "optimum" care from the nursing staff in dangerously sterile conditions. Luckily, the awareness of the need for bonding is pretty high today. However, an increasing proportions of children are born via C-section which entirely disrupts the early bonding process.

Sleep training

Due to my interest in healthy sleep, in the early 2000s, I started receiving mail from parents who wondered how they might best "train" their child to sleep in a separate bed. To a biologist it should be pretty obvious that this kind of practice is harmful. In the order of primates, the idea that babies should have their own bed is pretty new and there are no harmless evolutionary adaptations to sleeping separately. Separation is accepted via learned helplessness. This did not stop The American Academy of Pediatrics to issue recommendations against co-sleeping on safety grounds. This is tantamount to the Academy of Safe Adulthood issuing a recommendation against jogging to reduce the risk of running injuries. The benefits of co-sleeping go well beyond the issue of maternal separation. Co-sleeping benefits the mom and it benefits the child. Simple steps make it possible to co-sleep safely as we have done for millions of years. Some pediatricians claim that co-sleeping is bad for the sex life. Even if that was the case, the health of the child should always be a priority. Instead of "training" the child, adults should apply a bit of training onto themselves. We should never trade development for sex. For more see: Baby sleep

This glossary entry is used to explain texts in SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving

Figure: Despite counter-recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics, co-sleeping remains popular. The benefits of co-sleeping are too numerous to list (see: Baby sleep). (picture by Barbora Bálková, Czech Republic, source)