According to the developmental psychologist John Bowlby, the young infant develops its selective attachment when it is about 6 months old. Before this period, the child will mostly appreciate the security and comfort of an attachment figure.
The animal experiment by Harlow (watch video) shows that the need for comfort is at least as extensive as the basic need for food, if not more. Without the presence of a comfort mother, the monkeys showed obvious signs of anxiety and no exploratory behaviors at all.
This emphasizes the crucial role of comfort in the baby monkey’s development, but infants seem to have similar needs.
When the child does not feel comfort because of an insecure attachment figure, the child risks to develop psychological distress, which, in fact, may lead to mental illness in the long term.
Spitz & Wolf (1946) discovered the terms hospitalization and infant (=anaclitic) depression. Both reactions may occur when a child lacks a proper attachment figure at the age of six to eight months. There is a particular reason for this specific age, which is discussed later.
Hospitalization is when the child starts to stimulate itself because of an under stimulation in the environment. It is difficult to maintain eye contact with the child, and it seems emotionally numb and apathetic.
Infant depression is seen as diminished mood, loss of mimic, and apathy. These reactions are seen at poor places where there is no proper health care for the child.
Spitz & Wolf (1946) found that the psychological distress was relieved when the child was reunited with its mother within three to four months after the separation.
However, the long-term consequences of such a separation were not examined in their study. Children who had a better and more intimate relationship to their mothers showed greater psychological distress at the time of separation. Therefore, it can said that it is more difficult to lose a good “love object” than a bad one (Spitz & Wolf, 1946).
Bowlby described three separation reactions which the child undergoes if it is left alone from its attachment figures, or it simply lacks a proper one for a longer period of time.
- Emotional numbness
The infant will protest when the attachment figure is removed from the child, which is nicely shown in the experiment A Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (watch video).
After the child has protested, it will go into an unhappy emotional state of despair. The last and most extreme separation reaction is emotional numbness: The child no longer reacts to the voice of an attachment figure, and it does not seem to care about whomever is taking care of it.
The rationale for adopting an infant as early as possible is that the infant will not react upon separation if it is younger than the approximately 6-8 months. Theoretically speaking, it has not undergone a selective attachment to an attachment figure before that age, according to Bowlby.
It seems that children who are adopted earlier will actually develop better attachment styles than those who are adopted later according to Michael Rutter and colleagues’ experiment on a Romanian orphanage (Rutter et al., 2001).
Children who were adopted later would have absolutely normal cognitive skills, but they would suffer socially because they would have difficulties attaching to their adoptive parents.
It seems that it is the way in which the adoption is being done. An important factor is that the family who is adopting is able to provide the comfort the child needs.
Furthermore, it seems that infants who haven’t had a proper early life attachment will benefit from being adopted by better attachment figures.