Babies are naturally wired to form a special relationship with their primary caregiver(s). This connection is recognized by childhood development specialists as an “attachment relationship,” and attachment parenting, or parental behavior that promotes secure attachment, is one of the most important things you can do for your baby.
Attachment parenting has been popularized by the authors William & Martha Sears. Sears’ work is invaluable in that it has brought infant attachment, often an academic subject, to the attention of thoughtful parents. His foundational work, The Baby Book, is the baby book I recommend for several reasons as you can see in my book recommendations.
That being said, attachment parenting as defined by the Sears is distilled into a set of parenting behaviors that may not fit the lifestyle of many of today’s savvy parents, namely breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and while they don’t come out and say it, stay-at-home parenting. Each of these behaviors are super beneficial and I’m all for them if they work for you! However, you can practice them and still fail to foster secure attachment for your baby, just as you can refrain from them all and still create a bond with your baby that will provide them with security throughout their life span. While these practices benefit many parents practicing attachment parenting, we cannot equate these behaviors, or their absence, with secure or insecure attachment. My goal in this article is to teach some of the academic basics regarding attachment theory so that you, a savvy parent, can begin the process of figuring out what attachment parenting may look like in your unique life.
Attachment Behavior Begins With Baby
Babies’ wide open eyes, fixed gaze, and cute and attractive features, as well as their cries, give them an innate ability to attract and keep our attention. They communicate when they have a need. Through our response to them they form a relationship with us. Forming this relationship is crucial for the baby. From this relationship they will gain a sense of security. They will learn how to regulate their emotions and impulses, and how to express their feelings and needs. This relationship will form the basis from which they venture out and learn about the world.
The particulars of the attachment relationship form as the infant expresses a need and the caregiver responds. Dependent on the different styles of response, the infant develops a particular understanding of how human relationships work. To understand how this works, it is helpful to understand some of the incredible innate abilities of newborns.
While our babies are born with immature physical abilities when compared with many other mammals, they make up for it in advanced mental abilities. Human babies come into the world with the intellectual capacity to organize and find patterns in their experience, which is a complex task that relies on perception, memory, the ability to make inferences between the senses (cross-modal transfers of information), and the ability to internalize expectations. Research experiments clearly show that these abilities exist from birth and mature dramatically during the first two years of life.
Amazing Baby Abilities!
- Ability for Perception: Babies can recognize and turn towards their mother’s and father’s voice at birth. By three days old they will turn towards their mother’s breast pad rather than pads from other lactating women.
- Ability to Modulate Affect: During the first week of life babies will ignore familiar stimulus in order to remain asleep, calm etc, but will respond to novel stimuli by waking or looking towards an unfamiliar sound or bright light. One-week-old babies will turn away from stressful stimuli or go to sleep if they are over stimulated.
- Ability for Cross-Modal Transfer of Information: At three weeks old a baby who has been blindfolded and given a pacifier will subsequently prefer to look at pacifiers of that shape rather than differing shapes.
- Ability to Differentiate and Internalize Expectations: By three months babies will recognize and respond to the emotions of their caregivers. If a caregiver’s emotional state suddenly changes without cause (as in a sudden change in facial expression done on purpose for a research study) it causes great distress for the baby and they will cry or be frighted by the person for some time after the sudden change.
A Model is Formed
The need to remain attached to their caregiver is of vital importance to an infant. Along with cries and cute smiles, a baby’s amazing ability to organize information and modify their behavior helps them preserve their primary, and crucial-to-life, attachment with their particular caregiver. As a helpless newborn, this ability to develop a working model of how their caregiver functions is a survival mechanism. The baby needs to be able to elicit the actions that feed, bathe, clothe, and shelter him or her. (S)he needs to act in ways that maximize the closeness of his or her caregiver. Perhaps that is why figuring out human relationships is one of the first and most fundamental things babies learn about the world.
Babies whose caregivers respond consistently and predictably to their needs literally develop a different pattern of nerve-to-nerve connections in their brain than do their peers who adapt to inconsistent caregivers. With each interaction babies are learning what to expect from the world, and hardwiring their new learnings into their developing brains. The first two years are the fastest period of brain development, and attachment studies have shown that this is also the time when attachment models are formed and become stable. By the time your baby is two, they will have a fairly set idea about how they can expect humans to react to them, and how they should behave to keep people close. This is called an internal working model of attachment.
Attachment Models Affect Lifelong Experience
During the third and fourth year, preschoolers begin to apply their internal model of attachment to other relationships. That is, the model they have developed based on their understanding of their primary caregiver(s) becomes part of their framework for understanding themselves and other people. It works like a filter and an organizer that helps them interpret the intention of others, and helps them decide how to act. They begin to apply their model to other relationships beyond their primary caregivers. Their attachment model will teach them:
- How relationships work.
- What one can expect from others in terms of responsiveness.
- Assumptions about how effective they are in relationships.
- How valued they are.
- How worthy of care they are.
- How well they are able to regulate themselves and their strong feelings.
For example, if a child is not heard because they are not speaking clearly, one child may assume that no one cares about what they have to say and they will not repeat themselves whereas another child may speak louder assuming someone will respond if they are heard. Over time their decisions about what to do changes their experience of the world, which often reinforces their internal attachment model. Single experiences do not change working models, but repetitive new experiences will create change. In other words, a new style of caregiving, or new relationships will always have the potential to change one’s attachment model, but change comes more slowly after age four.
Four Fundamental Models of Attachment Based on Parental Behavior
Child psychologists identify four major models of attachment: secure, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant, and disorganized/disoriented, made famous by Mary Ainsworth’s work in the 1960’s with the “strange situation.” In the “strange situation” Ainsworth brought moms and babies into her lab which was a pleasant room with toys. She would have the mother engage her child in play, and then a stranger would enter the room. After the stranger entered the mother would leave, and then return again. Ainsworth found that infant’s reactions to separation and reunion with their mother were consistent with different style of parenting observed in the home.
Securely attached infants have caregivers who are consistently responsive to them. These babies show moderate distress when separated from their mothers, and they go to their mothers quickly and happily when they return, calming easily once their mother is back. Their working model is something like, “I can calmly express my needs. I will be comforted.”
Babies of mothers who ignore or punish cries remain stoic when separated, and turn away or avoid their mother upon her return. In other words, they learn that if they show distress they will be abandoned or punished, and they develop a model that says, “I must hide my distress in order to be cared for. I cannot turn to others for comfort.”
Babies whose mother’s are inconsistent show more distress when they are separated and returned to their mother but remain angry when they return. Their model may be something like, “I must control my relationships because people are unreliable. I want care, but it disappoints me.”
Disorganized infants show a mixture of both responses, often in contrasting and confusing ways. They do not learn a functional model, and subsequently often fail to create attachment relationships. These insecure attachment models are referred to as avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.
- Caregivers: Are responsive to baby’s cues, both cries and signs that they want to interact. Emotionally available to their babies and very loving.
- Baby: Will communicate all feelings openly. Has confidence that their caregivers will accept their full range of feelings, and help them regulate feelings that are distressing.
- Young child: Confidently learn and explore their environment. They have increased flexibility, resourcefulness, resilience, empathy, and good relationships. They can elicit support when they need it and have fewer behavior problems, negative emotions, and impulsivity.
- Caregivers: Ignore, reject, or punish baby, particularly for being distressed. Negative and inaccurate descriptions such as, “He’s crying just to spite me.”
- Baby: Appears somber or expressionless in situations distressing to most infants. Physiological tests show their stress response is the same as secure babies, but they don’t express it.
- Young child: Rigid exploration, increased hostility, unprovoked aggression, and negative interactions. Withdrawal or sulk in hard situations, face more discipline from teachers.
Ambivalent / Resistant
- Caregivers: Inconsistently responsive.
- Baby: Shows heightened distress compared with the reactions of securely attached babies to the same distressing situation.
- Young child: Decreased capacity to play alone or explore. Increased separation anxiety, inhibition, withdrawal, and poor social skills.
Disorganized / Disoriented
- Caregivers: May be ill or incapacitated. Often a neglectful or abusive context. History of trauma is very common. Anxious and fearful.
- Baby: Contradictory behavior, such as happily reaching for a caregiver and then appearing fearful. Not able to signal a need for help. Remain distressed for long periods.
- Young child: Effects are not as clearly studied, but a trend towards aggressive, hostile and coercive behavior have been found in school-age children.
Into the Future
The gift of secure attachment truly is a gift that lasts a lifetime. Longitudinal studies show correlations between secure or insecure infant attachment and behavior during the toddler, young childhood, and later childhood years. Securely attached toddlers venture confidently into the world. They explore more freely, are open to learning, and tend to be more flexible and resourceful. They also have a more developed capacity for self-regulation which results in less impulsive and aggressive behavior. These kids have been found to be physically safer, more positive, and to be socially competent both in making friends and in attracting beneficial interaction with adults. In later childhood, studies show that social competence continues to be higher in the secure-attachment group. They also have greater problem-solving skills and show successful adaptation and increased resilience in new and difficult situations.
Studies also show that attachment models tend to be consistent, not only throughout the lifetime, but from one generation to another as well. Researchers have also found that when adults assess their own early childhood attachment experiences through an interview, they strongly correlate with their children’s current assessments. One study showed that the adult assessment interview given in pregnancy was 70% predictive of their baby’s one-year-old assessment.
Creating Secure Attachments
As you may imagine, attachment parenting, or creating a secure attachment with your baby may or may not come naturally depending on your own early experiences. Most of us still carry our early attachment model with us – potentially only in subtle ways. We all have an internal working model of attachment whether from our early childhood or otherwise. Research shows that becoming a parent is a strong activator of our working model of attachment. If your internal model is still insecure, it will be harder to establish a secure pattern with your child because your current working model may interfere with your ability to perceive and understand your baby’s signals. You may have natural insensitivity that developed out of the defenses that were created during your early experiences, and while those defenses were helpful then, they now make it difficult to understand and bond with your baby. On the other hand, if you enjoyed a secure relationship with your primary caregiver it is likely that you will naturally form a secure attachment with your own child.
The great news is that all parents can practice attachment parenting and create a secure attachment to their children. If you did not have the blessing of secure attachment, more conscious work may be required to build your attachment parenting skills, but you can totally do it! Here are some key steps to building the relationship of a lifetime with your baby during pregnancy, birth, and the early months.
Top 10 Ways to Enhance Your Ability to Practice Attachment Parenting
- Educate yourself on the value of attachment. Parents with secure relationships with their children value attachment relationships and believe they have a big impact on personality and development. Develop a clear vision of what you want.
- Take a realistic view of your early childhood experiences. A key difference between adults who share secure attachments with their children and adults who don’t is the objectivity, balance, and coherence in their recollections of their own parents. It is not the absence of hard experiences, but rather memory of the positive and negative, understanding and integration that give adults the insight necessary to understand the impact of attachment.
- Manage health factors such as mental and physical illness. Extreme stress as caused by illness can make it more difficult to be consistently responsive to your baby. Seek medical care early for any physical or mental concerns. Depression and other mental health conditions do not need to impact attachment. Treatment is available. The biggest protective factor against postpartum depression is early intervention. Do not hesitate to seek treatment. Get help to gain control of all forms of addictive behavior.
- Seek outside help from other adults. Well supported new parents offer more attentive, warm care to their babies. You need to be nurtured, and you may need a practical set of extra hands
- Cultivate healthy adult relationships: learn to give and receive love. Positive relationship experience overtime will re-write your internal working model.
- Develop a habit of deep relaxation in pregnancy and talk to your unborn baby. Studies have shown that rituals such as meditative relaxation or Tai Chi exercise increase maternal-fetal bonding in pregnancy, which correlates with increased maternal-infant attachment behaviors after birth.
- Maximize bonding in the initial hours after birth. The period immediately after birth is a hormonally rich time of very rapid brain growth for both parents and infants. This is the imprinting period in less social animals, and humans share some aspects of heightened sensitivity during these hours. Keeping your baby skin-to-skin with you will naturally enrich your parenting instincts.
- Practice responsive, warm parenting. Be attentive and have empathy. Be sensitive to your baby. Trust that their cries are valid communications and mean something. Accept and meet their needs. Carry your baby in arms frequently. Meet their gaze. Offer them comfort whenever they need it. Play with them.
- Seek out peers & advisers who share an understanding of the importance of attachment. Parenting advice abounds, and much of it is not founded in a clear understanding of child development. All new parents have times when they can benefit from brainstorming with experienced parents, professionals, books and so on, but be sure you the advice you take to heart enhances your relationship with your child.
- Find a way that works for you: Avoid the trap of believing that attachment parenting means you must do something that is extremely unpleasant or overly demanding for you and your lifestyle. Yes, babies change our lives, and they are hard (meaningful!) work. But they do not need to make us miserable or sleep deprived. Guilt and feelings of inadequacy do not help form secure attachment. A happy, healthy parent is the true foundation of sustainable attachment parenting. Wide diversity exists among families who practice secure attachment-promoting parenting when it comes to things like your baby’s schedule, feedings, sleep routines, playtime, and more. There is no one-right-way to practice attachment parenting.
Reward for a Lifetime
Very little in life can compare to the joy of a secure relationship with your own children. You will enjoy the love you give and receive, and watch with wonder and gratitude as they explore the world and grow into the amazing people they inherently are. Secure attachment is a gift you cannot give without receiving – and one whose blessings extend beyond our wildest imagination.