The first few years of your child’s life set the foundation for their healthy development. Positive child development depends heavily upon a baby’s ability to form a strong relationship (secure attachment) with at least one primary caregiver; usually this is the child’s primary parent. But how does secure attachment happen?
Secure attachment starts even before an infant is born. During prenatal development, an infant learns the sounds and smells associated with their mother. When the child is born, they already have a strong connection to their mother’s voice and know her smell.
Babies continue to build on that connection and form secure attachment as parents respond to their needs, consistently and reliably, with love.
Early on, crying is a baby’s main tool for expressing their needs and seeking connection with their caregivers. Infants need the security of knowing a caregiver will respond to them every time they cry.
A caregiver who responds sensitively and lovingly reassures the child that they are cared for and safe and helps them establish trust. It is impossible to spoil an infant by responding to their needs.
A secure attachment to a primary caregiver provides the necessary sense of security all babies need to thrive. Without such a relationship in place, a great deal of developmental energy is expended in the search for stability and security.
In general, children without secure attachment tend to be more fearful and less willing to seek out and learn from new experiences. By contrast, a child with a strong attachment to a parent knows that they have “backup,” so to speak, and therefore tends to be more adventurous and eager to explore new experiences.
Consequently, they can spend a great deal more time observing and interacting with others and their environments, while learning and developing positively.
What happens when secure attachment is established, maintained, and strong in the first few years of life? The following characteristics will be observed:
- Basic trust
Children have learned that their needs will be responded to and met every time. Therefore, they expect help to be available and will easily reach out for it.
- Positive self-image and high self-esteem
The sensitive responses to and acceptance of your child’s attachment behaviour reflect on your child: the positive way you see and treat your child becomes the way your child sees and treats themselves.
- Autonomy, good problem-solving skills, determination
The early exploration of the world within your safe proximity has helped your child develop and create a sense of capability and mastery; “I can do this and it makes me feel good about myself!”
- Positive outlook on life
Securely attached children generally see the world as a non-threatening place and believe people mean well and are kind.
- Strong relationships
Your consistent, loving caregiving has paved the way for an ability to build and maintain long-term friendships and strong, healthy relationships.
- Good coping strategies and skills
A combination of a positive outlook on life and good self-esteem, along with the ability to reach out for help and expect support, help securely attached children to cope better and bounce back faster when dealing with emotional challenges, stress and trauma.
- Good emotional control and behaviour flexibility
Children with secure attachment are good at adapting to new situations and controlling their impulses and emotions.
All this positive development, learning and healthy relationship-building will apply for the rest of their lives. This demonstrates the importance of the first few years of life for a child and the important role you play as a parent.
It is important to remember that attachment security is not the only factor that affects children’s relationships with other people. A variety of other influences — including individual personality differences, parental beliefs, temperament, special needs and trauma — also affect a child’s process for relating to others, responding to stress, solving problems, and managing emotions.
Another challenge that can interfere with secure attachment is trauma, including extremely traumatic experiences such as suffering or witnessing abuse or neglect. Trauma causes specific parts of the brain to develop in different patterns.
When children are repeatedly exposed to violent and threatening experiences, the most primitive areas of the brain may become overdeveloped. And areas that cover positive emotional responses (cerebral cortex and limbic system) may not develop fully.
It is important to note that an insecure attachment does not mean a child is doomed to failure. It is never too late to support a child and form a lasting bond. However, the longer a child is on a specific path, the harder it is to alter that course. Early intervention will have the best results.
The role of the parent as primary caregiver grows over time to meet the needs of the securely attached child. Early on, that role is to consistently respond and provide support and security during the formative years (the first few years of a child’s life). Later, that role is to be available as the child needs periodic help during their explorations of the outside world (late preschool and up).
Maintaining a secure attachment in school-age children is often challenging as your child exerts independence, self-expression and forms relationships with peers. Some guidelines that may help:
- Be in tune with your child’s development and learning style;
- Remain emotionally responsive;
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including nutrition and exercise;
- Maintain positive sleep routines;
- Use positive, loving discipline that focuses on problem-solving;
- Maintain a balanced family life; don’t overschedule your child.
Children will thrive in life if their early needs are recognized, and responded to consistently with love and caring. What your baby, preschooler and child needs most is you. So, do what you do best: pick up your child, hold them, love them and respond to their needs every time, and a secure attachment will result.
*This article is based upon Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s theory of attachment, as expressed in his book Hold onto Your Children and DVD, Making Sense of Preschoolers.