The Lasting Influence of Mother-Infant Attachment

A storied American pediatrician's international travels took him to Japan, where he worked with a population that never experienced postpartum depression -- possibly because new mothers regressed to babyhood for one month.
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Jim Epler/Flickr

In 1983, I was invited by the Japanese government and my friend Noburu Kobayashi to come to Japan. Noburu (or Kobey, as we called him) and I had met at various international conferences. A pediatrician, he held a high position in the government, involved in infant health. When he learned about my Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS), he sent one of his students to be trained. Noburu wanted him to train Japanese doctors to use the NBAS all over Japan. Noburu had a great friend and advocate, Mr. Masaru Ibuka, the former CEO of Sony. He was powerful and very interested in fostering Japanese awareness of the importance of infancy and of early attachment of parents to their infants. He saw that Japan was about to change, with more and more women in the workforce, and he wanted to be sure to protect the mother-child relationship.

When the child didn't make it, some became so upset that they killed the only person they could blame: their mothers.

An unusual event in Japan had taken place. It was reported that over a period of two years, several eight- and nine-year-old boys had killed their mothers. These tragedies were blamed on the intense desire for upward mobility among Japanese parents. They pushed, pushed, pushed their children to get into the right child-care center, the right preschool, the correct grade school, and the right secondary school. When the child didn't make it, some became so upset that they killed the only person they could blame: their mothers. This was absolutely frightening to the Japanese government, as well it should have been. Mr. Ibuka and Dr. Kobayashi made plans to get an unusual team of experts together to travel all over Japan, talking about early attachment and its importance. Jane Goodall, who worked at the Gombe Reserve in Africa for chimpanzees and may well know more about chimpanzee nurturing than anyone in the world, was invited. A famous Australian child psychiatrist, Paul Campbell; a French educator; and my wife Chrissy and I were to go.

When we arrived in Japan, we were housed in a fabulous old inn. The rooms were traditional Japanese: mats on the floor on which we slept; paper walls, which we rolled back to go from one room to another; bathrooms with squatting toilets. So many things to learn in a new culture; the paper walls were magnificent, with very subtle designs, but one could hear everything from one room to another. 

The four of us "experts" went from city to city in Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki. Jane talked about her chimp babies in just the way I talked about our human babies. She showed how she held them gently out in front of her, to talk to them face to face. She had superb films of chimp mothers and even fathers nurturing their babies in the wild. As we went around to each city, hundreds of parents gathered for each presentation. None of us could speak Japanese, but that didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm. We were told that we were making an impact on Japanese parents. Hard to believe.

In Osaka, a prominent private researcher took Chrissy and me out to his reserve so we could observe nonhuman parent-infant inter­action "in the wild." In Nagasaki, an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Tomitaro Akiyama, introduced himself. He had translated the NBAS into Japanese and taught people to use it. In Japan, he explained, orthopedists are responsible for early intervention with children with special needs. He was interested in starting early intervention with these children from birth onward. At his hospital, they did very well in making up for a child's developmental delays that involved movement (motor delays), but he said that the children didn't "make the progress he'd like in cognitive and emotional development because their parents won't stay involved." 

"Especially on the Goto Islands off the coast," he said, "we can't get parents interested enough to bring their children to us for early intervention." He asked for our help.

The Goto Islands are part of a chain in the Pacific from Okinawa to Korea. There are 140 islands in all, 5 main ones. (Goto means "five" in Japanese.) They were the last stops for sailing ships before leaving for China. They were undeveloped, still traditional fishing islands. Their whole economy is fishing. The men fish; the women mend nets and clean fish.

The Goto mothers were expected to regress completely. Wrapped in a futon, each with her baby next to her, they were treated as babies themselves for one month.

My son, Tom, and I went. We lived on the main island, Fukue, for a month. We enlisted thirty newborns for our study. At birth, the newborns were sturdy, beautiful, quiet babies who paid attention for prolonged periods. Their movements were liquid and gentle, and their fingers and toes were freely involved in their ballet-like movements. Like the Mayan babies I'd studied, they were born and raised in the context of low-keyed motor activity, and so a newborn would pay attention to a soft rattle, a red ball, or your face for as long as thirty minutes without a break. I had been able to produce at most three to five minutes of tracking and listening in US newborns. This difference in the ability to pay prolonged attention was amazing to me, representing differences in genetic endowment and early environment. 

Presented by

T. Berry Brazelton, MD, is clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Harvard Medical School, professor of pediatrics and human development at Brown University, and founder of the Brazelton Institute and the Brazelton Touchpoints Center at Boston Children's Hospital. He is the author of more than 30 books.

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