BACKGROUND This paper describes severe, disorders of maternal affection and behaviour and suggests that there is an early process of mother-to-infant bonding which can go seriously wrong.
METHOD Forty-four self-selected women who had suffered from at least one episode of postnatal mental illness described an unexpected and often catastrophic failure to love one or more of their babies.
RESULTS These women reported absent affection, sometimes hate, rejection, neglect or impulses to harm, in relation to at least one of their children. These feelings often began immediately or very shortly after the birth, and with one exception, were specific to one child; such characteristics are best encapsulated by the term 'maternal bonding disorder'. Twenty-nine of the women were multiparae; first-borns were not significantly more likely to be the focus for such feelings. There was no direct evidence of predisposing maternal personality traits or previous experiences. Postnatal mental illness and recalled severe pain during labour were significantly associated with such disorders which, in their severe forms, did not occur in the absence of postnatal mental illness.
CONCLUSIONS The nature of the link between postnatal mental illness and disorders of maternal bonding remains unclear. Because, in multiparae, the disorder often 'missed' the first child, factors such as maternal personality traits or early childhood experiences cannot be regarded as sufficient causes.