What is infant attachment?
These days the word “attachment” seems to be a hot button among parents. The word itself is gaining a lot of press from a theory on raising children called “attachment parenting”, or “AP” for short. Attachment parenting is a whole, huge topic in itself, but I wanted to address what “infant attachment” really is by focusing on the importance of achieving an early bond with your new baby!
For the purposes of this article, unless otherwise specified, let’s assume that when I speak about “attachment”, I am more or less using this interchangeably with “bonding”. This bond is important for all babies, and can be described as specific connection to a person/or persons. This strong attachment is often best seen during times of stress.
Most of the research and literature on the subject of attachment began with research by the psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. They formed the initial “attachment theory”, and this theory was later expounded upon by Mary Main and Judith Solomon.
Basically, all of these psychoanalysts discovered that attachment plays a large role in the way our children develop. Securely attached infants seek out a care provider when unsure or stressed, and these children tend to be more confident overall than their non-securely attached peers. Infant attachment lays the groundwork for later life development, with securely attached infants being more likely to develop into successful, self-assured adults, who can form meaningful and healthy relationships with others.
In order to more fully grasp this whole concept of “attachment”, a mini-tutorial on the various types of attachment can be useful in teasing this puzzle apart.
Main Types of Attachment
Secure: Securely attached infants display a health relationship to a main care provider. They seek out exploration, and often “check-in” with their steady base (that provider). When briefly separated from their care provider, they show joy and confidence upon reuniting.
Anxious/Avoidant: Avoidant infants tend to “avoid” or ignore their care provider when separated or challenged with a stressful situation. Unlike their securely attached peers, they do not seek positive reinforcement from their base.
Anxious/Ambivalent: When separated from their care provider and reunited, anxious/ambivalent infants display confused behaviors between attachment and anger.
Anxious/Disorganized/Disoriented: These infants tend not to display any consistency in their behaviors toward their care provider, and often are described as “depressed”. They show characteristics of all the above, excluding the securely attached infants.
So now that you have a better understanding of all this psychoanalytic language and discussion, you may be wondering how all this “attachment stuff” figures into your lives with your new baby.
Attachment and My Baby
- Luckily (for obvious reasons!), most infants are securely attached. It is important to foster this type of healthy bonding and relationship with your child. This can help to have a more confident, happy infant (and parent!).
- Healthy attachment does not require you to be physically “attached” to your child at all times. It asks you to respond caringly, with thought, and with kindness to your children in times of need.
- It is healthy and normal to experience short durations of separation from your child. This can cause some mild stress for both you and your baby, but learning to be individuals is also paramount to mature development.
- Letting your baby fuss or cry for brief time periods will not harm your child or prevent a firm and secure attachment. In fact, doing so can often lead your child to determine ways in which to soothe and comfort themselves.
- Secure attachment does not mean attending to your child’s every whim. Remember, you are the parent and some limit setting is important.
- Being consistent in your message to your infant is always important, and can help to foster a secure attachment. Just like you enjoy knowing what to expect, your child appreciates that as well!
Although the topic of “letting your baby fuss” or “cry” tends to be one fraught with emotion and leads to a long discussion, it is important to touch on it here in the context of infant attachment. Letting your child fuss, whine, or even cry for short periods of time is something that most parents have to confront at some point in their parenting career. This period of concern over “fussing” tends to occur mostly surrounding sleep times. I like to remind parents that it is perfectly okay to let your baby make some noise for a few minutes before rushing into attend to them. Fussing can be a baby’s way of communicating that they are having a bit of trouble falling asleep.
Contrary to intuition or to what we wish, falling asleep (and then staying asleep) is a learned skill, which is surprisingly difficult for new babies to master! I like to remind parents to listen to their gut, and respond accordingly. If you feel that your baby is simply just blowing off a bit of steam, and is not overwhelmed, then let them work through this challenge for a bit, allowing them the time to discover their own self-soothing tools. If you feel your baby is overwhelmed, attend to him/her. You can revisit this challenge later! If your baby is too overwhelmed, you will not end up teaching self-soothing, but rather they will fall asleep due to exhaustion.
Try to avoid staring at the clock, and focus on listening. If the fussing is inconsistent, on-and-off, more “whining” than full-out crying, and if your baby doesn’t sound panicked, let him/her be for a while. It may be that your baby’s noises begin to settle, become less frequent, and gradually subside over these few minutes. If so, congratulations! You are watching the miracle of your baby developing this new skill…falling asleep! You will most likely be filled with a sense of joy and pride, not the dread, guilt, or anxiety many parents describe when letting their baby “cry it out”. Babies are born with a wide range of temperaments, and learn to fall asleep on their own in different ways and at different ages. Allowing your baby the space to attempt this new skill, and revisiting it as necessary, is giving them a wonderful gift of self-confidence and assurance for the future, and is certainly aiding them to become a securely attached infant!