Maternal care covers all aspects of the mother’s caretaking activity from her child’s birth until it reaches the age
of twelve to fifteen months, or, in the view of some authors, such as John Bowlby, the age of three years. Primarily, it is the quality of the relationship established by the mother with her infant and maintained throughout this period.
While “the mother” usually means the woman who has carried the child to term and looks after it after birth, in the present context it may also denote any person who fulfils the maternal role in a continuous fashion from birth on (mother substitute).
The concept of maternal care is essentially post-Freudian. Freud assigned the mother no primary structuring role in the mental development of the child, nor did he view the loss of the mother as a traumatic event of particular import when it occurred in the child’s earliest years. He did, however, make mention of maternal care in a footnote on the “autistic” fiction of a shell in his paper on the “Two Principles of Mental Functioning” (1911b, pp. 219-220n). And towards the end of his life, he intuited the importance of the mother-infant relationship, describing it as “unique,” and as “the prototype of all later love-relations” (1940a , p. 188), and suggesting the existence of an early sexualized relationship centered in particular on the oral satisfactions the infant obtains from feeding.