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‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ : Vital Importance Of Mother-Infant Attunement – Childhood Trauma Recovery

‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ : Vital Importance Of Mother-Infant Attunement

The psychoanalyst Winnicott believed that the primary and most fundamental need of the human being is a close emotional and psychological bond with other people; and, as one might imagine, the baby’s bond with the mother is the most vital relationship of all.

The Third Trimester And Primary Maternal Preoccupation:

Winnicott stressed the enormous importance of the mother being sensitive and well attuned to the needs, both physical and psychological, of her baby. In relation to this, he theorized that, in her third trimester, through a natural process (that has evolved for its ‘survival value’), the mother becomes more intensely aware of, and concerned about, her baby; Winnicott referred to this acute awareness as ‘primary maternal preoccupation.’

According to Winnicott, this particularly intensive period of awareness of, and attunement and sensitivity to, the baby’s needs continues into the first few months of the newborn baby’s life.

Because of the mother’s extreme attentiveness to her baby at this time, the infant starts to feel that his/her every wish is fulfilled which gives him/her the impression of omnipotence; according to Winnicott, this is a very important part of the baby’s psychological development.

Problems That Can Occur During This Stage Of The Baby’s Development:

However, problems may develop at this time if the mother fails to be sensitive and responsive enough to the baby’s needs – in such a situation, according to Winnicott, the baby may develop a high anxiety state including feelings of helplessness and isolation.

On the other hand, however, Winnicott warned that if the mother becomes overzealous in her attempts to tend to her infant’s every whim during this period, and responds to him/her excessively, the baby can feel overwhelmed and intruded upon. This can be damaging as the baby relies upon the mother to protect him/her from being overwhelmed by his/her environment.

Winnicott goes on to suggest that if the mother fails to prevent the infant from being overwhelmed by his/her environment during this phase, and, indeed, actually adds to the problem by over-interacting with the baby and inappropriately intruding upon him/her then the infant may become ‘prematurely autonomous’ and develop a ‘false self’ which can lead to relationship problems in adulthood.

The ‘Good Enough’ Mother:

Winnicott stressed that the mother need not be perfect, but, rather, needs to be what he termed ‘good enough.’ However, this begs the question: ‘What is good enough’?  (particularly given that babies differ in temperament so that what is ‘good enough’ for one baby may not be for another).

Transitional Objects:

Winnicott also coined the term ‘transitional object.’ This is a comforting object the infant attaches him/herself to in order to provide him/herself with a sense of security such as a soft toy or security blanket.

Winnicott stated that it is very important that the infant chooses this object him/herself as it represents the mother; the object is used by the child to provide a sense of safety as s/he navigates the transitional period between total dependence upon the mother and greater autonomy.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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