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Berk (2009) determined that the experiences of a child at a tender age could have such a significant impact, that infancy is generally regarded as a sensitive period.  The brain is most receptive to external inputs during early childhood, and the infant’s experiences thus constitute the child’s organisational structure and foundation for brain development (Bain, 2015; Perry, 2009).  The attentive quality and structure of the relational interaction between a caregiver and a child refers to the notion of attachment (Letourneua et al., 2015).  As the development of an infant occurs within an interpersonal framework, the quality of the care being provided to a child, especially during such a sensitive development period, consequently influences the path of development the child is to follow (Bain, 2015).

The sensitive nature of infancy has greatly been established as a result of the adverse consequences of deprived care which, according to Johnson (as cited in Berk, 2009), could under certain circumstances lead to a child’s consistent underdevelopment on a physical as well as a psychological level.  Studies in this regard have emphasised the significance of attachment – the forming and sustaining of a resilient, loving connection – between infants and their caregivers in order to ensure the child’s emotional well-being (Berk, 2009; Mash & Wolfe, 2010).  Perry (2002) submitted that attachment comprises three elements, namely a sustained bond with a particular individual; security, comfort, solace, and pleasure being derived from the said relationship; and the loss or potential loss of the individual causing great suffering.

Attachment thus provides the foundation for children to explore and acquire knowledge concerning their environments and to form relationships later in life (Berk, 2009; Marsh & Wolfe, 2010).  The normal development of the structures of the brain accountable for attachment are also dependent on the presence of attachment experiences, especially in terms of the infant/care-giver relationship during the first year of a child’s life (Perry, 2001).  The favourable development of a child could consequently be materially hindered by an impaired level of attachment between an infant and caregiver, and behavioural, social, relational, and emotional difficulties, as well as possible childhood disorders, ranging from depression, phobias and personality disorders, could also be induced (Berk, 2009; Marsh & Wolfe, 2010; Perry, 2002).

It appears self-evident that abuse or severe neglect would have an annihilating effect on a child; however, an inadequate form of care or an unfavourable level of attachment could also have a life-long adverse impact on a child.  A number of other factors have accordingly been identified which could either individually or collectively impact directly on the functioning and abilities of a caregiver and subsequently the relational interaction and bond between parent and child (Perry, 2001; Perry, 2002; Tomlinson, Cooper & Murray, 2005).

Interventions intended to promote secure parent-child attachment, thus as to prevent and remedy the stunted development of children, and to counter the effects of insufficient caregiving and the nature of the desolate environments in which children are being raised, appear to be of critical importance (Berk, 2009; Perry, 2001; Petersen et al., 2012).  Early intervention particularly appears to be important as timely treatment is more effective than a later counter-response, as the attachment styles of infants under eighteen months are more fluid, and as families with babies are deemed to have frequent contact with healthcare professionals for the first year subsequent to the birth of the child (Bain, 2014; Letourneau, 2015; Perry, 2009).

Notwithstanding, it may be important and beneficial to consider the impact of unfavourable attachment even if therapeutic intervention is sought at a later stage.  Kindly discuss these issues with your mental healthcare professional should you have concerns in this regard.

References & Further Reading

Bain, K. (2014). “New beginnings” in South African shelters for the homeless: Piloting of a group psychotherapy intervention for high-risk mother-infant dyads. Infant Mental Health Journal, 35(6), 591 – 603.

Bain, K. (2015). ‘The bodies and minds of babies in relationship’: Psychoanalytic contributions to Johannesburg’s first infant mental health conference. Psycho-analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa, 23(2), 107 – 121.

Baradon, T., & Bain, K. (2016). Interfacing infant mental health knowledge systems: Reflections on the narratives of lay home visitors’ experiences of learning and applying relational concepts of development in a South African intervention program. Infant Mental Health Journal, 37(4), 424 – 439.

Berk, L. E. (2009). Child Development. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Children’s Act 2005.

Letourneau, N., Tryphonopoulos, P., Giesbrecht, G., Dennis, C., Bhogal, S., & Watson, B. (2015). Narrative and meta-analytic review of interventions aiming to improve maternal-child attachment security. Infant Mental Health Journal, 36(4), 1 – 22.

Mash, E. J., & Wolfe, D. A. (2010). Abnormal Child Psychology. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Mortensen, J. A., & Mastergeorge, A. M. (2014) A meta-analytic review of relationship-based interventions for low-income families with infants and toddlers: Facilitating supportive parent-child interactions. Infant Mental Health Journal, 35(4), 336 – 353.

Perry, B. D. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children: Consequences of emotional neglect in childhood. Retrieved from

Perry, B. D. (2002). Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: what childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and Mind, 3, 79 – 100.

Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical Applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14, 240 – 255.

Petersen, I., Bhana, A., & Swarts, L. (2012). Mental health promotion and the prevention of mental disorders in South Africa. African Journal of Psychology, 15, 411 – 416.

Tomlinson, M., Cooper, P., & Murray, L. (2005). The mother-infant relationship and infant attachment in a South African peri-urban settlement. Child Development, 76(5), 1044 – 1054.

Tomlinson, M., Swartz, L., & Landman, M. (2003). The Hanover Park mother-infant project: Methodological challenges and compromises in a South African context. South African Journal of Psychology, 33(4), 205 – 211.

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