Margaret A. Ribble, The Rights of Infants: Early Psychological Needs and Their Satisfaction, 1943

Margaret A. Ribble, The Rights of Infants: Early Psychological Needs and Their Satisfaction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).

Margaret Ribble, a physician interested in child psychiatry, observed 600 healthy infants born in New York maternity hospitals and did research with 100 expectant mothers, whose attitudes about pregnancy and birth she explored over a period of eight years. She was deeply influenced by the Freudian tradition and worked personally with Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, during the two years she spent in Vienna at the Wagner-Jauregg Clinic for mentally ill adults. This excerpt enumerates the core ideas of psychogenesis and illustrates why they have been so closely linked to mother-blaming: emotional attachment early in life was essential to normal mental and physical growth; infants’ ties to their caretakers made all subsequent relationships possible; any interruption in mother-infant bonds might cause significant psychological harm; giving birth and providing satisfactory “mothering” were two quite different things. Meeting infants’ emotional needs was the prerequisite for all human connection. That was why Ribble believed that children had “the right to a mother.”


The Right to a Mother

This book is not written to disparage the value of physical care and the tremendous advances we have made along those lines, but rather to bring up to date our knowledge of the early mental life of the baby and the emotional aspects of motherhood, so that the child may immediately become a part of the great network of human relationships…. But whether mothering is done by instinct or design, it is important for everyone to know that it is as vital to the child’s development as is food….

The baby is a potential person, but his mother must actually function for him for many months, and any separation from her at this time causes damage psychologically….

It is difficult to draw a clear line between the infant’s physical and psychological needs, for the very act of making him more comfortable physically, if done by a kindly hand, may at the same time stimulate his sense of aliveness and his consciousness of personal contacts. Certainly we know now that the capacity for mature emotional relationships in adult life is a direct outgrowth of the parental care, more specifically the mothering, which an infant receives….

[M]other love is a good deal like food; we do not stop giving it because the child may get too much or the wrong kind. It has to be expressed regularly so that the child expects it; a little at a time, and frequently, is the emotional formula. When it is given in this way independence, rather than dependence, is fostered.. For independence is the outgrowth of a feeling of security and completeness….

Not every woman can mother a child, even though biologically she may be capable of giving birth…. Unfortunately, however, our highly impersonal civilization has insidiously damaged woman’s instinctual nature and has blinded her to one of her most natural rights—that of teaching the small baby to love, by loving it consistently through the period of helpless infancy. It is for this reason that the modern woman may need help and guidance in her relationship with her baby….

Early Emotional Development

The rights of a baby to guidance in the evolution of his emotional life must receive predominant emphasis after the fourth month of life. He begins at this time to show, in addition to physical growth and health, the first specific emotional responses to his mother….

The feelings of the baby center completely in himself. It is through the mother that an infant gets his first feelings of what human beings are like and he begins in turn to like or dislike them…. Careful nurture of positive emotion has a fundamental influence. The unloved child comes to feel that his parents are thwarting creatures who are necessary but obnoxious….

It is apparent from observing many infants who…have been deprived of love and from comparing them with others who have flourished under tender personal care, that the ability to love is not a new and independent psychological reaction appearing automatically at a certain period in the child’s life and proceeding to develop regardless of outside experiences. It is rather a highly complicated pattern of behavior, beginning physiologically at birth, when the first hungers are appeased by the mother, and developing psychologically in response to her presence and her care.

Toward Mental Health

[P]oor relationship with the parents leads to reactions in the infant which tend to become the basis of adult personality disorders. The most important asset of the baby as he begins life is two emotionally healthy parents. His deepest need by far is the understanding care of one consistent individual—his mother. Perhaps in time we shall recognize the danger of the emotionally unhealthy personality and shall see that emotional disturbance is as damaging to the baby as is tuberculosis or syphilis. If this sounds shocking to any reader, let it be taken to heart. The parents who shrink in horror from the “animal” side of life make it impossible for the child to develop the very qualities of intelligence and spirituality that they think they stand for. If they are to be worthy parents of a normal baby, groping his way upward like any living thing, they will have to develop a new form of fastidiousness founded on knowledge of biological reality. There is no other way to guide the baby toward mental health.

Skip to toolbar