A recent eye-opening study of 14,000 children in the United States found that as many as 40 percent of children don’t develop strong emotional bonds (what psychologists refer to as ‘secure attachment’) with their parents.
The review of international studies of attachment, Baby Bonds, found that infants aged below three who do not form strong bonds with their mother or father are more likely to suffer from aggression, defiance and hyperactivity when they get older.
Attachment refers to the impact that children’s early parental care has on their social and emotional development.
When a parent responds to a child in a warm, sensitive and responsive way — such as picking up the child when they cry and holding and reassuring them — the child feels secure and confident their needs will be met.
When distressed, an infant knows that his or her parents will respond sensitively, and can therefore safely express negative emotion, seek proximity to the caregiver, and expect to feel better.
Bonding is often, but not always, an instinctive process, which is influenced by your interactions with your baby.
So, how can you help prevent your child from not having a secure attachment? Here are five ways that you can help your baby to attach to you more securely:
#1: The Power of Touch
From the moment of birth, a healthy alert baby will seek the breast and may even follow a process known as the “breast crawl”. By allowing a mother and baby to remain undisturbed for at least the first hour after birth, this valuable skin-to-skin contact will begin the process of bonding and attachment. This is a critical moment, which a mother and baby will never get back. We must give it the respect that it deserves.
If being skin-to-skin is delayed by intervention or concerns about the health of mother or baby, it is still important to reconnect them as soon as possible. Even if it's hours or days later — the sooner, the better. If you have a c-section, there are ways you can optimise skin to skin time. Find out here. The key is to choose a willing and supporting care provider.
Kangaroo care is a term used to describe a method of supporting premature babies through direct skin contact with either parent (or other family members if required) as often as possible, during and after time spent in an NICU.
At home, skin-to-skin contact will continue to strengthen the bond between parents and their baby. Infant massage is an ideal way to introduce touch into your baby’s care. This is especially helpful for dads, who feel they can do little to comfort their baby in the early weeks or months.
#2: Feeding With Focus And Presence
No matter if you're breastfeeding or bottle feeding, this is a very important time to connect with your baby.
Nature designed your newborn’s visual focus to be exactly the distance from your breast to your eyes, so that eye contact between mother and baby would be strong right from the start. By looking at your baby, talking to her, stroking her and holding her close, your bond will strengthen.
Some parents who are not breastfeeding choose to adopt an approach known as ‘bottle nursing', which closely replicates the way a mother might hold and interact with her baby at the breast. Find out more here.
#3: Babywearing – Close Enough To Kiss
Known for being a convenient way transport or settle a baby, babywearing is also recognised as an important aid to bonding.
Modern babies spend a lot of time in ‘containers' – prams, cots, bouncers, baby seats, high chairs – all designed to free parents from holding their baby so they can do other things. However, they also reduce the social interaction between mother and baby, such as eye contact, talking and touching.
Research into the use of forward-facing prams has even found that babies had faster heart rates if they are unable to look at their mothers and fathers – and they may even have higher levels of stress.
Babywearing enables all the elements of bonding – eye contact, touch, scent and voice. Find out more about the benefits of babywearing here.
#4: Gentle Sleep Support
How you handle night-time parenting can make a big difference to the connection between mother and baby. In the early days, you will want your baby close at night, as well as during the day, so you can quickly respond to his feeding cues (hence minimising crying). Sleeping with your baby within arms-reach by practicing safe bed sharing — or having your baby’s bassinet or cot alongside your bed — will allow this.
Continuing to have your baby in the same room as her mother is now recognised as an important way to reduce the risk of SIDS. Recommendations suggest doing this for at least 6-12 months.
Night waking is normal throughout the first year and into the second. Nighttime feeding is also very important. While many families accept this, others look to sleep training methods to reduce or eliminate it. There are many reasons to be cautious about some techniques and how they impact on a child’s secure attachments needs to be considered.
Known as Cry It Out (CIO), this is the least interactive sleep training method. It instructs parents to leave their infant alone at sleep time, completely ignoring their cries. They literally cry it out until they have no more left. This is why in the past, you would hear stories of people walking into a Romanian orphanage, and the babies would be silent. They had given up, because there were not enough arms to comfort all the babies.
Graduated Extinction Method
The ‘graduated extinction method’ (‘controlled crying’ — also known as ‘controlled comforting' or simply ‘sleep training'), which instructs parents to leave their infant alone at sleep time. They are to alternate between minimal attending and unattended crying at increasingly longer intervals. This practice has long continued against the recommendations of the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health. Read about the con of controlled crying here.
Recent studies have shown that, after using extinction types of sleep training, babies do cry less at night and mothers stress levels were correspondingly decreased. However, babies stress levels remained high – indicated by elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Quite simply, the babies had stopped seeking the mother but were not coping without her. A relaxed mother and stressed baby are out of sync. They have lost what is called a ‘synchronous interaction’.
Synchronous interactions are fundamental to the development and maintenance of a secure mother-infant attachment.
This involves responding to the infant's cries overnight. This is highly recommended by trained and educated professionals, who are also attachment theorists. They believe that maternal availability and responding to infant cues at bedtime are necessary for young children. Here are 6 Awesome Baby Sleep Experts Worth Following.
#5: Respect Your Baby’s Cry
Babies only cry when they need to. They can't yet use words to let you know that something is wrong.
Hunger, thirst, pain, discomfort, stress, loneliness, fear, tiredness and overwhelm are all valid reasons a baby communicates with his primary carer using the most powerful tool he has. When he cries, he's trying to get your attention to let you know that he needs help.
The cry of an infant is intended to disturb his mother – otherwise, she would not respond quickly! It is the result of bonding and attachment that you care enough to interpret the cause of the crying as quickly as possible.
However, extreme or unexplained infant crying can also negatively impact on bonding. It's important to seek support if you have a baby whose crying makes you feel angry, frustrated, anxious or worried you might harm your baby. Here are 10 Things Your Crying Baby Wants You To Know. You might also like to read Two Things Proven To Reduce Infant Crying.
Science tells us that when babies cry alone and unattended, they experience panic and anxiety. Their bodies and brains are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones. After all, their very life depends on you being there — and you could be in China for all they know!
Your baby needs your support, not only to resolve the cause of crying when possible, but to reassure them while they cry. A crying baby needs his mother or other caregiver to let him know it will all be okay. He's only doing what he's biologically programmed to do to survive. Will you let him know that he's safe?
The bonds created in infancy are life-long. By taking positive steps to create strong attachments, you are looking after your child’s future emotional and mental health.