Libi Michelson

Would a refrigerator mom want to eat her child?

Autistic Pride Day is June 18, 2023

I recently came upon two very different theories that somehow collided in my brain and I’ll tell you why:

1. Refrigerator mother theory

In the 1940s, an Austrian psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, coined the term “Refrigerator mother” to explain a possible cause for autistic children’s symptoms and behaviors. He believed the children’s mothers were cold, lacking warmth in their parenting style, and were traumatizing their children with their lack of care. He believed that the mothers of the children were less nurturing in their parenting approach, which might have caused distress to the children.

This theory continued into the 1960s when Bruno Bettelheim at the University of Chicago championed this theory and even compared autism to being a prisoner in a concentration camp, “The difference between the plight of prisoners in a concentration camp and the conditions which lead to autism and schizophrenia in children is, of course, that the child has never had a previous chance to develop much of a personality.” He believed that parents, especially mothers, were cold, distant, and rejecting, causing their children to be unable to bond properly.  The refrigerator mother theory was a harmful and damaging theory that caused many mothers of autistic children to feel guilty and ashamed. It has since been debunked.

2. The Urge to Eat Your Baby

Have you ever smelled your baby’s head and thought, wow, I need to take a bite out of that cheek? Back in 2013, an international team of scientists concluded that this was biologically related to maternal functions. “We have shown for the first time that the odor of newborns, which is part of these signals, activates the neurological reward circuit in mothers. These circuits may especially be activated when you eat while hungry, but also in a craving addict receiving his drug. It is in fact the sating of desire.” Essentially, the baby’s smell makes your brain feel hungry. 

The findings show that the scent of newborns is a crucial factor in forming emotional and motivational connections between mothers and their children and trigger maternal instincts such as feeding and safeguarding, which help create a strong bond between mother and child.


So what do these two theories have to do with each other? To explain that, I have to give some background information. 

In my previous blog post, I discussed when my husband and I were informed that our son had a genetic condition. We have lived with this knowledge for almost 4 years, and along the way, we have done everything we can to ensure he gets the help he needs. To do that, we had to go through many bureaucratic steps, which included getting him re-diagnosed by a medical committee here in Israel. Their ruling included a brand new autism diagnosis. 

When I learned about the cold mother theory this week, I immediately thought of the urge I had moments before to ‘eat my child.’ I remembered how much time I spent lovingly staring at my child with a stupid grin on my face. I know that I call him beautiful, tell him how much I love him, and shower him with kisses. My child is given plenty of opportunities to bond.  

And ya, there’s no doubt that as parents, we will affect our kid’s behavior, development, and emotional growth. I know my neurotypical child will complain about me sometime in the future. But if you ever join a Facebook group, a WhatsApp chat, or a support group for moms and dads with autistic children, you will find an overwhelming amount of love, warmth, and strength, and you will wonder what the heck Leo Kanner was thinking.

About the Author
Libi Michelson is a creative marketer and content writer. Raised by Israeli parents in the US, she made aliyah with her husband and two kids in 2021. Libi likes to write about being a working parent, parenting a child with special needs, and the struggles of being jewish, being a jewish mom and everything in between.