Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Attachment Behavior in Children

Mary J. O'Connor; Nina Kogan; Richard Findlay

Background: This study examined the association between prenatal alcohol exposure and attachment behavior in 4- and 5-year-old children. Prenatal alcohol exposure was hypothesized to be associated with insecure attachment behavior of the child toward the mother. It was also hypothesized that children with heavier prenatal alcohol exposure would exhibit higher levels of negative affect as well as poorer coping skills. The quality of maternal support in interaction with the child was predicted to mediate prenatal exposure effects.

Methods: Participants were 42 mother-child dyads, the majority of whom came from poverty backgrounds in which the mother was a single parent. Attachment security was measured using the Attachment Q-Set.

Results: Results revealed that prenatal alcohol exposure was highly related to attachment insecurity. Eighty percent of children who were exposed to alcohol during gestation were insecure, whereas 36% of unexposed children were insecure. Prenatal alcohol exposure also predicted child negative affect, which was related to lower levels of maternal emotional support of the child. However, when the mothers of the prenatally exposed children provided high levels of support, these children evidenced better coping skills and more secure attachment relations.

Conclusions: Although prenatal alcohol exposure was found to relate to higher levels of insecure attachment, children of mothers who provided them with emotional support were more able to deal with frustration. These children also exhibited higher levels of attachment security. Thus, the mother's supportive presence may mediate the association between prenatal alcohol exposure and the child's security of attachment.

Key Words: Prenatal Alcohol Exposure; Attachment Security

From the School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles (MJO, NK), Los Angeles, California; and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (MJO, NK, RF), Los Angeles, California.

Received for publication January 25, 2001; accepted August 8, 2002.

Mary J. O'Connor, Department of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine, Room 68-265A, Neuropsychiatric Institute, 760 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90024; Fax: 310-825-2682; E-mail:

This research was conducted at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science Collaborative Alcohol Research Center through a grant funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U24-AA11899-2) and the Office for Research on Minority Health.

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2002; 26(10):1592-1602 Copyright 2002 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins All rights reserved

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