Final dates! Join the tutor2u subject teams in London for a day of exam technique and revision at the cinema. Learn more

Study Notes

Bowlby's Theory of Maternal Deprivation

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 6 Sept 2022

As early as the 1930's, researchers were beginning to identify the long-term damage associated with disrupted or limited attachment opportunities.

In Bowlby’s The Origins Of Attachment lecture he alluded to this:

“During the nineteen-thirties and forties a number of clinicians on both sides of the Atlantic, mostly working independently of each other, were making observations of the ill effects on personality development of prolonged institutional care and/or frequent changes of mother-figure during the early years of life.”

Bowlby’s (1953) Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis proposed that a “warm, intimate & continuous relationship with a mother (figure)” is necessary for healthy psychological/ emotional development. “Mother-love in infancy/ childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins & proteins for physical health.”

Consequences of maternal deprivation

  • An inability to form attachments in the future (see the Internal Working Model)
  • Affectionless psychopathy (inability to feel remorse)
  • Delinquency (behavioural problems in adolescence)
  • Problems with Cognitive Development

Bowlby (1944) 44 Juvenile Thieves Study

44 Thieves were compared with 44 Non-thieves from a delinquency centre. Bowlby collected data via interviews and questionnaires from the 88 juveniles and found that 17/ 44 thieves had experienced early prolonged separation from their mothers before 5 years.

15/17 of these thieves were classed as affectionless psychopaths (no guilt/ remorse), while only 2/44 non-thieves had experienced such separation. Therefore these findings support the MDH, as there appears to be a link between disruption to attachments in the first 5 years and later maladjustment.

Bowlby’s subsequent research reported that 60 children who had spent time apart from their mothers due to tuberculosis prior to the age of 4, demonstrated lower achievement in school.

Bowlby’s findings indicate that experiencing disrupted attachments early in life is linked to crime, emotional maladjustment and lower academic achievement, lending strong support for the MDH.



Practical applications – the MDH and accompanying research has significant real world applications, as they highlight the importance of positive attachment experiences and maintaining a mono tropic bond in the first five years, which have been instrumental in the developments of good childcare practices. Greater stability in childcare practice has been developed through daycare centres assigning caregivers to children and hospital visiting hours have been reviewed so that children can maintain contact with their parents.

Some national governments offer more financial support for young families in terms of maternity and paternity leave. For instance, Sweden offers 480 days parental leave, clearly highlighting its commitment to support children’s early attachment experiences.

Bowlby summarised some of the key applications that stemmed from the research in the 1950's, pointing to implications for those “working in child psychiatry and psychology and in social work, and some also of those in paediatrics and sick children's nursing,” (Bowlby 1988).


Retrospective recall might be inaccurate - As Bowlby was asking the adolescent participants to recall separations that they had experienced years earlier, their responses would have been subject to inaccuracies/ distortions.

Investigator effects - Bowlby designed and conducted the self-reports himself and as a result, his presence and interpretation might have influenced the outcome of the research. Bowlby’s diagnosis of affectionless psychopathy might have been distorted by researcher confirmation bias.

Conclusions are correlational - Bowlby found a relationship between early separation and delinquency/ affectionless psychopathy but we cannot definitively conclude that the separation was the cause. There may have been a third unidentified variable that accounted for the delinquency/ affectionless psychopathy. For example, the immediate cause of the separation (such as neglect or abuse) might have been the direct cause of problems experienced at adolescence rather than the separation itself.

Oversimplified concept - Michael Rutter’s (72) Maternal Deprivation Re-assessed critiqued Bowlby’s concept of the Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis. Rutter argues that Bowlby failed to distinguish between separation from an attachment figure, loss of an attachment figure and a complete lack of attachment (privation). Rutter argues that the three circumstances have different long-term effects on which Bowlby overlooked.

© 2002-2024 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.