The way you respond to your baby’s distress and need for protection early in life has critical, long-term effects on their development.
Everything that is important about life, we learn through the context of relationships. Secure and stable relationships are the foundation for healthy emotional development and subsequent secure and stable relationships later in life. Makes sense, right?
But how do these secure and stable relationships develop in childhood? What is attachment and what role does it play in the kind of relationships our children have with us and in the future? The answer: everything!
Attachment is the foundation of secure relationships and relates to the part of the infant-caregiver connection concerned with protection and safety. Specifically, it relates to the infant’s confidence that the caregiver will meet his or her needs for protection.
All babies form an attachment to at least one significant caregiver in their first year of life. However, the quality of this relationship differs according to a baby’s experiences with their caregiver’s ability to provide a safe and secure environment.
Attachment relationships provide a safe haven that promote a feeling of security in times of distress, a secure base that fosters confidence in one’s ability to make sense of mental states such as desires, feelings, and beliefs in oneself and others.
Although attachment begins in infancy, the need for attachment relationships continues throughout the life span, and the pattern of attachment children establish with their primary caregivers will set the template from which children will build all their future relationships.
So how does attachment develop?
A baby’s attachment system is activated when safety is threatened; when they are hurt, ill, or emotionally upset. At these times, they look to their attachment figure and attempt to get a response through attachment-related behaviours such as crying, clinging, and seeking closeness. A caregiver’s response to these cues for comfort and protection determines what type of attachment a child develops.
The key to children developing secure attachment is having caregivers who are able to see the world from their children’s perspective and respond to them in timely and sensitive ways. A pattern of nurturing and supportive responses in the first months of life increases a baby’s confidence that they can count on their caregiver to be there when they need protection and from this, secure attachment develops.
At about four to six months old, your baby knows how you are likely to respond to them when they are sick, hurt, or upset. From these responses, they have already begun to develop strategies that reflect the pattern they have experienced.
A baby who has been exposed to caregivers who respond sensitively and timely most of the time only has to cry a little, because they are confident someone will respond. Conversely, babies who have to work hard to get their caregivers’ attention cry loudly and seem to go from zero to 100 quickly. This is because they know that crying less loudly will not likely provoke a caregiver’s response.
But why is secure attachment so important?
Children who are securely attached as infants fare better than their insecurely attached peers in all areas of development. The way you respond to your baby’s distress and need for protection early in life has long-term effects on their development because it directly impacts your babies’ ability to explore their world.
A baby who is preoccupied with getting and keeping their caregivers’ attention does not feel safe enough to explore their environment, as protection may not be there when needed. As a result, learning and development are affected. Meanwhile, a securely attached baby learns: “I can cue you that I need you and count on you to bring me back to a place where I can learn from my environment.”
But attachment goes way beyond the first year of life. It impacts a child’s ability to be social from birth through the teen years, as well as cognitive development and problem-solving skills, the ability to guide and regulate their emotions and behaviour, and overall self-esteem.
Infants and children with insecure attachment can experience detrimental effects such as sleeping problems, eating problems, low self-esteem, anger management issues, social issues, academic issues, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The insecure child learns: “You are dismissive of my needs for comfort; you are rejecting my cries; needing you makes me anxious. Therefore, I don’t cue you and often will deactivate my own attachment need.”
What can you do to help your child develop secure attachment?
Whether you have an infant, toddler, preschooler or older child, the need for protection is the same. The first step in helping your child feel safe and protected is to respond to them in a timely and sensitive manner as much as you can. Your ability to respond in a sensitive manner depends almost entirely on your ability to see the world from your child’s point of view.
Remember that comforting your baby/child when they cry does not spoil them. It helps them to trust you and realize they can depend on you. Research shows that a baby who is responded to in this manner in the first six months of their life cries less and is more easily soothed in the second six months of their life.
Second: accept all of your child’s feelings, especially the difficult ones; do not minimize or dismiss them. Messages such as: “You’re fine; there’s no reason to cry” or “You only fell; you’re fine,” do not accept or acknowledge how your child is feeling.
Third: help your child understand their feelings by labelling emotions from birth. This helps your child learn about their feelings, but also helps them know you understand their world, which is the foundation of secure attachment.
When a parent responds to their child appropriately most of the time, children learn they can rely on their parent and that they are worthy of love and affection, setting the course for healthy relationships for the child’s entire life.
For community resources or to access parenting support, visit www.parentresource.ca or call 613- 565-2467 ext. 222
Kelly White is a parenting educator at the Parent Resource Centre.