Monday, August 22, 2011

Maternal Attachment and Biological Differences

    Ainsworth’s original Strange Situation included only three classifications of maternal-infant attachment, as discussed in a previous post.  However, research since this time has uncovered that 15% to 85% of infants may not fit into one of these three categories, increasing with respect to the level of risk of the sample.  Infants in this new, fourth category are referred to as disorganized-disoriented or atypical.  During the Strange Situation, these infants lack a single, clearly defined coping strategy.  Instead, they appear confused or exhibit conflicting emotions and behaviors.  Many researchers have looked to biological differences to explain atypical attachment patterns .
            Research has found that biological differences can affect attachment classification.  Infants who have certain medical conditions exhibit behaviors that may alter typical maternal responses and, in the long term, may alter maternal-infant attachment.  An infant with Down Syndrome, for example, may be less emotional towards his caretakers and use different signs of distress.  Consequently, his mother may react differently to his signals.  In the case of some developmental or emotional disorders, biological differences serve as the cause of atypical attachment patterns.
            On the other hand, some biological conditions only have the appearance of affecting attachment patterns.  In the cases of medical conditions that manifest themselves in primarily physical terms, as in cerebral palsy, the physical actions of these infants may appear to mirror those of atypical attachment.  However, these movements are not necessarily indicative of underlying feelings of attachment or relationship patterns.  In cases of physical disabilities resulting in motor impairments, biological differences may attribute to atypical attachment classification, but this classification may reflect the actual maternal-infant attachment pattern. 
            Finally, atypical attachment patterns can physiologically express themselves, again indicating biological differences in the various attachment patterns.  As was previously stated, infants who are atypically attached do not display a single coping strategy during the Strange Situation, instead alternating between multiple patterns of emotion and behavior.  This is a sign of higher levels of stress within the infant.  Hertsgaard, Gunnar, Erickson, and Nachmia (1995) have discovered a significant relationship between the cortisol levels and atypically attached infants.  Cortisol is produced by the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system which often activates when typical coping mechanisms are not sufficient or external coping sources are not available.  Thus, during the Strange Situation atypical infants likely lack individual coping strategies to deal with the stressful circumstances, and they do not view their mothers as a reliable relief.   Hertsgaard’s et al. research did not determine the causality of this relationship, however, so it is not possible to determine if higher levels of cortisol are a cause or effect of atypical attachment with this data. 
However, other studies indicate that regulated levels cortisol are likely the result of secure attachment early in life.  The Aussie mama who blogs at Gullible New Parent did an amazing job analyzing this, so, instead of re-explaining what has already been explored, check out her site here if you are interested.

Barnett, D. Vondra, J.I., Butler, C.M. (1999). Atypical patterns of early attachment: Discussion and future directions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64(3), 172-192. Retrieved from 
Hertsgaard, L. Gunnar, M., Erickson, M.F., Nachmias, M. (1995). Adrenocortical responses to the Strange Situation in infants with disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships.  Child Development, 66(4), 1100-1106. Retrieved from 

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