Women’s experiences of maternal foetal/infant attachment during the transition to new motherhood: an interpretative phenomenological analysis

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McLoughlin, Geraldine
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University College Cork
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Becoming a mother is an intense experience, which sets the foundation for future interactions and relationships for both mother and baby. Researchers have theorized that maternal infant attachment begins during the antenatal period and continues through the postnatal period, though the reality of the experience for the mother remains largely unexplored (Müller and Mercer 1993; Cranley 1993; Laxton-Kane and Slade 2002). A comprehensive review of the literature highlighted that behaviours are often used to determine whether a woman has achieved a successful transition to becoming a mother, formation of an attachment relationship with her baby and having a successful identify of a mother. However the psychological and emotional wellbeing of women during this life changing event remains largely unknown. The impact of the maternal attachment relationship on infant mental health, wellbeing and development is now gaining more recognition as being vitally important (WAIMH 2010). There is also a shift in the provision of maternity care from a physical medicalised model of care to one integrating more diversity and incorporating maternal mental health, emotion and psychology as a complex experience that needs to be explored. There are many variables, complexities and concepts that influence the maternal foetal/infant attachment relationship. Accordingly, this study examined how the concepts of (1) transition to motherhood and (2) identity influence a mother’s experience of the attachment relationship during pregnancy and with her baby. Understanding these experiences has implications for practice and is relevant to the particular needs of the women, babies and families in our care and society. To investigate this gap in knowledge, an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith, 2009) approach was used and nine participants recruited. A longitudinal three-phase project was adopted where semi-structured interviews were used to collect data during pregnancy at approximately 35 week’s gestation, and at six and twelve weeks postnatal. The super ordinate theme which emerged from the data during pregnancy was ‘Attachment relationship with the unborn baby’ and following birth: ‘Attachment interrupted’ and ‘Getting to know you’ emerged from the women’s narratives. These themes identified that transition to motherhood and the attachment relationship between the mother and her foetus/infant is a process and not an event where time is required for adaptation to the new role to be facilitated. Following on from this, at twelve weeks postnatal the women had achieved a new understanding of their experience as reflected in the super ordinate themes: ‘I have finally arrived’, and ‘Identity –wearing the mask of motherhood’. The longitudinal dimensions of the study enabled narratives to be collected valuing the unique perspectives of the participants and respectful of their 'lived experience', revealing ways in which the transition to motherhood, and the experience of attachment from the maternal perspective is socially constructed and personally experienced. The epistemological and ontological perspectives led women to challenge assumptions around mothering which they may have previously held, which influenced their expectations and rendered experiences which did not conform to idealised notions of motherhood, difficult to voice or express. The women’s narratives of their subjective experience convey the overwhelming nature of motherhood, and the multifaceted phenomena that influence the attachment relationship. This study provides an insight into the experience of the transition to motherhood, the development of the attachment relationship of first-time mothers and how maternal identities are revealed by the narratives they convey. It also highlights the complexity of the maternal foetal/infant attachment. Finally, implications for education, research and practice are explored and elaborated.
Foetal attachment , Infant attachment , New motherhood
McLoughlin, G. 2017. Women’s experiences of maternal foetal/infant attachment during the transition to new motherhood: an interpretative phenomenological analysis. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.