The idea of primary maternal preoccupation was coined by D. Winnicott (1956) as he observed mothers and their infants during his pediatric practice. He observed that primary maternal preoccupation develops during the last stages of pregnancy and lasts through the first few weeks of the infants' life. During this stage, the mother's psychological dimensions change so that she is capable of identifying with the infant, a phenomenon which is too complex considering the diverse process identification would involve. As adults, we have come a long way from infanthood to be able to empathize and identify with what they go through. Mothers, however, have a special ability as they are capable of identifying with the infant.
Major research has been invested on the infant attachment on the mother and the benefits such attachment have and the lack of it thereof. This has proven the need for the mother to be around and answer to the impulsive demands of the infants at any time, the need for mother-infant touch in the psychological development of the infant. Furthermore, these studies have shown the effects and deficiencies such infants will undergo at later stages of their lives. The role of the parents in this mother-infant attachment has however been much neglected. The thoughts and the roles of the parents and the elevated place the infant holds in their lives also need to be highlighted (Davidson, 1994).
The mental content of parents at this preoccupied stage majorly focuses on thoughts of unity with the infant as well as thoughts that their infants are in perfect conditions (Hollway, 2011). Such idealizing thoughts play a major role especially among at-risk children. Research has shown that mothers of at-risk children who express idealizing thoughts are much more capable of meeting the special needs of these children. Such parents feel that their infants are not so far from ideal babies, and such infants were more socially alert and active during plays, just like normal children.
Nursing, feeding and physical contact are the motherly interactions that are perhaps most common during infant interactions. Breast feeding women have described the experience as very close, and at times even sensual that creates a tight bond between them and the infant. Breastfeeding mothers were also shown to be more sensitive to the needs of their infants, highlighting the importance of mother-infant intimacy in developing close relationships. It is however worth noting that too much or too little parental preoccupation might turn out to be problematic. Too little attention accorded to the child might traumatize the infant and lead to esteem issues whereas too much attention might lead to overdependence in future life of the child. There is a high likelihood that mothers experiencing depression might have difficulties developing intimate relationships with their infants.
At primary maternal preoccupation, evidence suggests that the neural circuitry of mother undergo some shift. The release of oxytocin in to the bloodstream results in the milk production during nursing and the contraction of uterus during labor. Reports by Zackson (2012) allude to the fact that oxytocin stimulate maternal behaviors in female rats. Virgin rats injected with oxytocin developed full maternal tendencies within minutes. Data on the effect of oxytocin on maternal influence on humans is scarce. Physical touch between a mother and her infant has however shown to elevate maternal oxytocin levels which in turn increase the pumping of breast milk. Mothers of infants who had higher amounts of breast milk showed optimal maternal tendencies. Since oxytocin also serves as an anti-depressant and reduces anxiety in mothers, it is highly likely that it plays a key role in the complex process of mental shaping that is necessary in optimal maternal caregiving.
Genetic alignment can also be used to explain this special preoccupation between a mother and an infant. There are at least nine genes that have been shown to induce the expression of maternal behavior. The nature of early caregiving experiences can have long lasting effects on subsequent maternal behaviors. Evidence provided by Doron (2013) suggests that a child, who had a disturbed mother-child relationship such as abuse, might transfer these tendencies to their maternal caregiving, leading to impaired mother-infant intimacy. A caregivers level of respositivity to their infant can also be traced to how they were treated by their caregivers during their infanthood. From these studies, it is crucial that caregivers offer close relational attachment with their infants as they have a long lasting impact. Early interventions aimed at improved parenting skills, ensuring maternal well-being are encouraged so as create a healthy environment suitable for the psychological and physical growth of the child.
Behavioral, genetic and neurological factors help us understand the complex process of primary maternal preoccupation that is so vital in shaping the future well being of an infant. It is important that mothers should be provided with a conducive enabling environment to be able to better provide for the physical as well as the psychological needs of the infant so as he can grow to be a healthy person.
Davidson, D. (1994). Primary maternal preoccupation.
Doron, Y. (2013). Primary Maternal Preoccupation in the Group Analytic Group. Group Analysis, 47(1), 17-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0533316413516237
Hollway, W. (2011). Rereading Winnicott's 'Primary maternal preoccupation'. Feminism & Psychology, 22(1), 20-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0959353511411692
Winnicott, D. W. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation (pp. 300-305). London: Tavistock.
Zackson, J. (2012). The impact of primary maternal preoccupation on therapists' ability to work with patients.
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