The Wound of Mother-Newborn Separation

IanIsolette_optAs I contemplate the 23rd anniversary of my daughter’s birth this week, my thoughts go back to the oh-so-tender moments surrounding birth. How powerful they are, for mothers and for babies. (And for fathers, but that’s for another day!) How imprints from these moments can mark us lifelong.

After Eve was born, she never left my side during our 24-hour ABC room stay. This in contrast to my son Ian’s birth, when I gave in and allowed them to whisk him away to the newborn nursery (against the strong advice of his progressive pediatrician, Jay Gordon). With Ian, I was in essence revisiting and reenacting my own traumatic beginnings — as an adoptee who had been separated from my biological mother immediately after I was born.

The Deep Roots of Mother-Newborn Separation

Routine hospital obstetrics has historically presumed no ill effects of mother-newborn separation, but pre- and  perinatal psychology reveals that it can mark us deeply. The attitude for generations has been, “Why would separation affect a newborn baby?”

But the last thirty years of pre- and perinatal research has given us astounding findings about what a fetus experiences in the womb, what a strong connection it has with the mother long before birth, and how intelligent, aware and remembering a newborn is. Researchers currently feel the more appropriate question to be, “Why wouldn’t separation from the mother to whom he or she was connected for nine months affect a newborn in critical ways?”  As Nancy Verrier wrote in her landmark 1993 book, The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, 

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period.  When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound.”

 The Deep Cuts of Mother-Newborn Separation

This information also applies to parents of babies who are not adopted, but who have experienced being separated from their mothers at birth due to prematurity or other neonatal intensive care issues, a health crisis in the mother, or any other circumstances that led to postpartum separation.

Adoptees may unconsciously feel that it’s too dangerous to love and be loved authentically and deeply; all of the love and care parents give them sometimes has a hard time “getting in” past the child’s defenses against the hurt and abandonment that they are internally “hardwired” to expect.  As Verrier says of her own relationship to her adopted daughter, “I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it.”

Varying degrees of this impact can occur under circumstances other than adoption, such as NICU stays for premature or ill babies — in which case the trauma of separation may be compounded by painful medical procedures, isolation, and harsh, invasive surroundings. The primal sense of loss, abandonment and rage that results from the trauma of separation is overwhelming to a newborn, who hasn’t yet developed an ego, much less ego defense mechanisms.

Left unacknowledged and unaddressed, these unresolved nervous system patterns permeate the psychological and personality realms, and can manifest in such ways as hyper-controlling behavior (“the little tyrant”) and intense emotional volatility, or the opposite, a superficially cheerful adaptiveness (“the pleaser”).

Healing Separation with Connection

Parents, you don’t need to feel hopeless in the face of these revelations. On the contrary, if you’re faced with an inexplicably unsoothable baby… or, one who kind of “tunes out” and won’t engage … NOT having access to these insights could leave you hopeless and helpless!

Now that you recognize the impact of these early experiences, it can be very liberating — it frees you to not take your child’s behavior personally (“He doesn’t like me!”).  This can empower you to make yourself truly available as a loving, healing presence for your baby.  How?

One of the most powerful healing forces is available to every parent, free of charge: empathy.  Empathy allows a person, even a tiny baby, to feel her feelings, rather than repress them, so they can be released.  Babies who have lost their original mothers, permanently or even temporarily… and babies who have suffered other painful or traumatic experiences … need to express their feelings of grief and loss. They need our help to do this, and this help needs to take the form of active empathy… saying the words, out loud, that let the baby know that what he or she is feeling makes sense and is allowed.

Talking and Listening to Your Baby

MomInRedWCryingBabySo instead of the common dismissive mantra chanted to upset babies, “It’s okay, you’re okay, you don’t need to cry…” the thoughtful and knowledgeable adoptive parent can gently croon to her baby in distress:

“You miss your mother. You miss your connection. You’ve lost something very important, and I understand.  I’m not the mom you expected, I don’t smell like her, I don’t sound like her.  I’m a different mom and I am here for you … always… when you feel sad, and when you feel joyous…”

Or, to a NICU baby:

“I really see you, and that you’re in distress… I understand… You had some scary and painful things happen to you while I wasn’t with you, and I’m very sorry…”

These may be difficult words to say, words that prod at our own losses and hurts. But I can think of no greater gift we can give our precious new children than the freedom to be exactly who they are, with everything they feel, so they don’t have to carry the leaden emotional baggage of banished feelings throughout their lifetimes.

My Own Daughter’s Healing Words to Me

We never stop needing what we didn’t get when we first needed it. (Follow that??) Meaning, if our children didn’t receive the empathy or the healing words they needed in the moment, it is always possible to offer the healing. It is never “too late.”

Talking to a child while he or she sleeps can be a powerful way to offer healing words. (This approach is covered in the ebooklet offered at the bottom of this post.)

And we ourselves can encounter healing words in the most unexpected moments. After hearing me tell the story of the day she was born — for the nth time — my own daughter Eve, who was only three, caught me unawares by asking me about the day that I was born. I hadn’t given any serious thought to how I would convey to my children the fact of me being adopted, so I was really on the spot.

I did a pretty good job of answering her in story form at her level of understanding: “The mommy whose tummy I grew in didn’t have what she needed to be a mommy… she didn’t know a lot of the things mommies need to know… she didn’t have a room for me… she didn’t even have a daddy for me.”

Eve was spellbound, her gaze locked onto me. I continued: “But there was another lady who really wanted to have a baby, and who couldn’t grow one in her belly, so they decided that she would take me home and be my mommy.”

After a very, very long silence, her eyes glistening with tears, Eve’s question came:

“Did you get to say goodbye?”




Eve has gamely accepted my invitation to join me on a teleseminar call to talk over the view from her unique vantage point as the daughter of…me! I really don’t know quite what will transpire, but we will dive into stories, recollections, insights, struggles we’ve shared between then…

…and now!


Knowing the territory, I wouldn’t be surprised if we touch upon things like:

  • when an older child is afraid to sleep alone
  • navigating real-world issues like…the dentist office!
  • the “messy room” battles
  • protecting her childhood in a prematurely grown-up world
  • how Waldorf education served (and did not serve) Eve
  • cultivating deep trust with your tween / teen daughter
  • the special joy awaiting you: mothering an adult daughter
Thursday, Jan. 30 | 11am Pacific / 2pm Eastern
   I always give away goodies on my calls!!  
Mother & crying baby: N8tr0n under a Creative Commons license
Last image: Mary Ann Halpin

I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I’m offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a “Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child’s Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors.”


One thought on “The Wound of Mother-Newborn Separation”

  1. Ah, thank you for this. People are so quick to assume that mothers are interchangeable; replaceable and children will not care. A poor single mother is better replaced with an older mother with father in tow and more to offer in the material sense. The child will be always “better’ for it and any perceived losses felt by said child is the fault of theirs for feeling it “wrong”.
    I was that first mommy who thought I needed more than I had to give to be what my son needed. And of course the nice adoption agency told me that he would never be wanting. They still use the same marketing message these days to convince other mothers to relinquish. They never told me of any loss he might feel then, and they do not warn mothers considering adoption of the possibility of the primal wound now.

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