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Attachment: Maternal Deprivation Orphan Studies & Institutionalisation | AQA A-Level Psychology


Last updated 22 Dec 2023

This topic quiz tests A-Level Psychology students' knowledge and understanding of rsearch into the affects of maternal deprivation a

Click here to have a go at the quiz: Attachment: Maternal Deprivation Orphan Studies & Institutionalisation | AQA A-Level Psychology

Attachment: Maternal Deprivation Orphan Studies & Institutionalisation - An Academic Summary

The history of attachment research is intertwined with the exploration of maternal deprivation and its effects on children. Notably, orphan studies, focusing on children raised in institutions or separated from their mothers early in life, have contributed significantly to our understanding of the critical role of early caregiver relationships in healthy development.

Maternal Deprivation Theory:

Developed by John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, maternal deprivation theory proposed that an early and prolonged separation from the primary caregiver (often the mother) could have detrimental effects on a child's emotional, social, and cognitive development. This deprivation was believed to disrupt the formation of secure attachment, leading to potential issues in forming future relationships, regulating emotions, and coping with stress.

Orphan Studies:

In the late 20th century, studies conducted on Romanian orphans who experienced extended institutionalization during the communist regime provided crucial empirical evidence for maternal deprivation theory. These studies, including the landmark work of Michael Rutter, highlighted the negative consequences of institutional care on children's development:

  • Cognitive delays and learning difficulties
  • Social and emotional problems, including attachment disorders, anxiety, and depression
  • Language impairments and communication difficulties
  • Increased risk of mental health issues in adulthood

Key Findings:

  • Critical period: The earlier and longer the deprivation, the more severe the consequences. Studies suggested that the first three years of life were particularly crucial for healthy attachment development.
  • Importance of Individualized Care: Orphanages often lacked opportunities for one-on-one interactions and responsive care, hindering the development of secure attachment bonds.
  • Positive impact of adoption: Research also showed that children who were adopted into families before a certain age (around 2-3 years old) demonstrated better developmental outcomes compared to those who remained institutionalized.

Limitations and Criticisms:

  • Ethical concerns: Some criticized the research for potentially contributing to public anxieties about adoption and neglecting the potential for positive experiences within institutions.
  • Methodological considerations: Criticisms focused on methodological complexities, including potential confounding variables and differences in institutional environments.
  • Cultural context: Generalizability of findings across different cultural contexts raised concerns, as institutional care experiences and family structures vary significantly.

Current Understanding:

While orphan studies provided valuable insights, our understanding of attachment and its implications has evolved. Today, the focus is on the quality of caregiver relationships, recognizing that responsive and nurturing caregiving figures, regardless of biological relationships, can contribute to healthy attachment development. The emphasis is also on understanding the complex interplay of individual differences, environmental factors, and trauma in shaping individual outcomes.


Despite limitations, orphan studies have enriched our understanding of the significant role of early caregiving experiences in child development. They have informed policies and practices towards improving childcare in institutions and promoting early adoption or foster care placement for orphaned children. The research continues to emphasize the importance of nurturing caregiver relationships and providing sensitive and responsive care during the critical early years.

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