Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

– John Bowlby proposed his theory of maternal deprivation in 1951

– He focused on the idea that the continual presence of nurture from a mother or mother-substitute is essential for normal psychological development of babies and toddlers both emotionally and intellectually

– Maternal deprivation refers to the emotional and intellectual consequences of separation between a child and their mother


– There is a distinction to be made between separation and deprivation.

– Separation means the child not being in the presence of the primary attachment figure.

– This only becomes an issue for development if the child has deprived, if they lose an element of their care.

– Brief separations, particularly when the child is with substitute caregiver, are not significant for development but extended separations can lead to deprivation, which by definition causes harm.


– Bowlby believed that it wasn’t enough to make sure that a child was well- fed and kept safe and warm

– He believed that infants and children need a warm and continuous relationship with their mother to ensure normal mental health


– Separation will only have this effect if this happens before the age of two

– Bowlby saw the first 30 months of life as a critical period for psychological development.

– If the child is separated from their mothers in the absence of suitable substitute care and so deprived of her emotional care for an extended period during this critical period then psychological damage was inevitable.


– Maternal deprivation effects children’s intellectual development.

– If children were deprived of maternal care for too long during the critical period they would suffer mental retardation, characterised by abnormally low IQ.

– For example, Goldfarb (1947) found a lower IQ in children who had remained in institutions as opposed to those who were fostered, and thus had a higher standard of emotional care.

– Another way maternal deprivation affects children is in their emotional development.

– Bowlby identified affectionless psychopathy as the inability to experience guilt or strong emotion for others.

– This prevents the person developing normal relationships and is associated with criminality.


– Bowlby (1944) analysed the case histories of his patients in the child guidance clinic in london


– The sample included 44 criminal teenagers accused of stealing

– All ‘thieves’ were interviewed for signs of affectionless psychopathy.

– Their families were also interviewed in order to establish whether the ‘thieves’ had prolonged early separations from their mothers.

– A control group of 44 non-criminal, but emotionally disturbed, young people was set up to see how often maternal separation / deprivation occurred in the children who were not thieves.


– 14 of the 44 thieves could be described as affectionless psychopaths.

– Of this 14, 12 had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers in the first two years of their lives.

– Though, only 5 of the remaining 30 ‘thieves’ had experienced separations.

– Of the control group, only 2 out of 44 had experienced long separations.

– It was concluded that prolonged early separation / deprivation causes affectionless psychopathy.



Research support

– Some animal studies support this theory of maternal deprivation.

– For example, Harlow’s monkeys and Levy et al in 2003.

– Levy showed that separating baby rats from their mother for as little as a day had a permanent effect on their social development though not other aspects of development

– Harlow showed the effects of maternally deprived monkeys who were more aggressive and socially and sexually abnormal

– These animal studies support Bowlby as they show that maternal deprivation does have an effect

Real World Application

– Bowlby’s study and Theory had an enormous, positive impact on post-war thinking about child rearing and also how children are looked after in hospitals.

– Before Bowlby’s research, children were separated from parents when they spent time in hospital.

– Visiting was discouraged or even forbidden.

– Robertson (1952) filmed a 2 year old girl called Laura during the eight-day period she was in hospital.

– She is seen to be frequently distressed and asks to go home.

– Bowlby’s and Robertson’s work led to a major social change in the way that children were cared for in hospital.

– Therefore, Bowlby’s theory has added to our understanding and has meant that children are better cared for in hospitals


Counter research

– Not all research has supported Bowlby’s findings

– For example, Hilda Lewis (1954) partially replicated the 44 thieves study on a larger scale, looking at 500 young people.

– She found that a history of early prolonged separation from the mother did not predict criminality or difficulty forming close relationships.

– This is a problem for the theory of maternal deprivation because it suggests that other factors may affect the outcome of early maternal deprivation.

Deprivation vs Privation

– Michael Rutter 1981 criticised Bowlby’s view of deprivation.

– Rutter claimed that Bowlby did not make clear whether the child’s attachment bond had been formed but been broken, or had never formed in the first place.

– Rutter’s view of deprivation was that the lack of an attachment bond ever been formed had far more serious consequences for the child than the loss of an attachment bond.

– He uses the term of privation to refer to situations when a child fails to develop an attachment bond with one caregiver

– And deprivation to refer to situations where a bond does develop, but through prolonged traumatic separations is disrupted or loss.

– This lack of clarity in Bowlby’s definition of deprivation may therefore, negatively affect the validity of research findings