The ‘Still Face’ Experiment: The Importance Of The Mother-Child Bond.


As newborn babies, we enter the world ‘hard-wired’ (i.e. neurologically predisposed) and driven to form a powerful bond with our primary carer.

How well the quality of this bond (which psychologists normally refer to as ‘attachment’) develops has a critical impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional development.

Indeed, if the manner in which the bond develops is in some way significantly deficient then the actual physical development of the infant’s brain may be adversely affected which, in turn, is likely to lead to myriad problems in later life.

Factors that affect the quality of the bond between the infant and primary carer (usually the mother) include:

  • facial expressions
  • tone of voice
  • tactile interaction
  • gestures
  • postures

The ‘Still Face’ Experiment:

The ‘still face’ experiment, which can be painful to observe, involves, in the first stage, a mother interacting normally with her four-month-old infant. On a given signal from the experimenter, however, she ceases all interaction with the baby (both verbal and non-verbal) and, instead, just wears a blank expression (the ‘still face’).

The infant, of course, finds this deeply distressing and, usually, will redouble his/her efforts to interact/connect positively with the mother. For instance, the child may increase his/her smiling, eye contact, reaching out, and cooing.

This desperate attempt to recapture the mother’s interest can go on for up to 3 minutes.

However, once (approximately) this time has elapsed, and the mother remains unalterably unresponsive, most often the baby will then become obviously distressed, upset, agitated, anguished, enraged, manifested by much crying and screaming. The baby’s emotional distress may be so intense and overwhelming that s/he loses postural control to the point of physical collapse.

In this distressed state, the infant may then attempt to ‘self-soothe and comfort him/herself; for instance, s/he may start to suck on his/her own hand.

This experiment is clearly controversial and upsetting for everyone involved; indeed, at this point in the experiment, some researchers end it.

However, other researchers have let the experiment carry on beyond this point for a short time and have found that in the next (and final) stage, the infant seems to fall into a state of withdrawal, despair, despondency, lethargy, and hopelessness (mimicking, in some respects, symptoms of the adult clinically depressed state).

Whilst, as stated above, the ‘still face’ experiment is controversial and distressing to contemplate, it is a powerful illustration of the crucial importance of the quality of the bond between the primary carer and the infant and its dramatic impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional welfare.

What Happens If A Mother Continuously Fails To Form An Emotional Bond With Her Child?

Some mothers may fail to connect emotionally with their baby over extended time periods and this can occur for a number of reasons including severe depression, having an alcohol and/or drug problem, or being the victim of domestic violence. Children brought up in this way may develop serious psychological difficulties including an inability to control emotions and to self-soothe, impaired ability to trust others, and other interpersonal problems.



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