Study: 40 Percent Of Children Lacking Secure Attachments

Study: 40 Percent Of Children Lacking Secure Attachments

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.

Extinction Method

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.

Cue-Based Methods:

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.

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Last Updated: September 19, 2015


Yvette O'Dowd has been a breastfeeding counsellor and educator since 1992. She has three adult children and a two year old granddaughter - the best sort of bonus baby! Yvette runs a popular natural parenting network, is a babywearing educator, and runs antenatal breastfeeding classes for parents expecting twins and more! She is a keen photographer and scrap-booker and a keeper of a fairy garden.


  1. In regards to this article…
    I always attend to my crying baby fast. But what do you do when they cry in the car? I have an hour trip to school in the mornings and afternoons and bub hates the car. It makes me feel terrible. Luckily I just got a new car seat and yesterday’s trip went well. But I’m so afraid he will get so upset again. There is no safe place to stop on the drive.

    1. I had that problem too, with 4 children in the house, and a bub that would scream in the car for 20 mins. Broke my heart. But the best you can do is minimise other time spent crying. Alternatives are to get a car pool going, which is what we did, took turns of weeks taking the kids to school. Or share the cost of a taxi. Try and be creative, ask for help from other parents or family members. So hard!

    2. I had this problem as well for the first 2 solid years (until i began cheating and allowing her a movie device to watch to entertain her.) Toys, mirrors, snacks, cups, and music would help in small intervals! Good luck. It does get better.

    3. It is about consistency rather than having to attend every single time. Sometimes it is not possible but as long as they consistently receive an attuned response they will believe they will be safe, hence a secure attachment.

    4. Remember, while it’s important for the mother to bond with the baby, I also believe it is important for the siblings to bond. While you’re driving try having the siblings hand over a pacifier or shake a toy, talk and try to make some face contact. It’s a good self-esteem booster for the big brother/sister to be able to comfort.

    5. Sing songs loudly, whatever works to distract them because that provides connection. Maybe play kid songs on stereo. Nature never planned for situations and laws that require baby to be separated into car seat so we must do the best we can.

  2. LOVE this article Yevtte!! And love this research! Answer your baby’s cries, cuddle your baby and just simply be there for your baby. 🙂

  3. What about the babies that are blind and/or fed through a g tube and can’t be held while being fed? Or the baby that struggles to breath after birth and can’t be held? Good article for healthy babies but for babies with disabilities it’s really depressing.

    1. I understand it can be especially hard (and emotional) when health issues get in the way.

      Feeding is just one way you can bond. No matter what way you feed, you can still increase the bond with your baby. Especially if your baby is blind, then skin to skin and touch are your biggest keys here. Your baby will thrive with lots of comfort and skin to skin — so know that it’s the best gift you can give your baby.

      You’re an amazing mama. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re cuddling your baby too much x

  4. Hello, I’m really confused after reading this article. I’m in the middle of getting help with what they call the controlled comforting technique because my baby who used to sleep almost through the night (and had never been left to cry) at 8 months started waking up more and more until she was waking up and needing me to get her back to sleep (usually breastfeeding her) every hour or two. This went on for 3 months before I got help and was told she was waking up during her light stage of the sleep cycle and didn’t know how to put herself ball to sleep without being breastfed, being held or rocked or jiggled back to sleep. We have now been practicing listening to her cues and I’m in there patting and singing to try to get her to sleep but avoiding picking her up unless she is very distressed and only breastfeeding as a lady resort. It has made such a huge difference to both of us and she only wakes up a couple of times in the night now but to not pick her up straight away when she woke up howling in the night was so heartbreaking and felt really wrong but it was only for a very short time. You say you should never let your baby cry but don’t offer any solution as to what to do about a baby who is waking up constantly which seriously drives the parents crazy but I can’t imagine it is good for the baby either. She apparently needed to learn to go sleep on her own without needing us to do it for her but I can’t see how that could have been achieved without some tears. If you are saying “don’t do this” shouldn’t you also say “do this instead”? I’m just left very confused now and don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing doing controlled comforting but I simply could not go on any longer with constantly broken sleep so what is the alternative?

    1. Hey Brook, it is really hard, and you’re doing a great job! It really is like ‘hanging in there’ most of the time.

      Unfortunately sleep deprivation does come with the job, and not just in the newborn days, but well past one for many parents. This is normal baby behaviour. The best thing you can do is to try and get as much sleep as you can, when you can. Babies have major developmental leaps at certain times, teething etc which make them very uncomfortable and the three c’s — crying, cranky and clingy. My third baby has finally started sleeping through at close to 3 years of age. That doesn’t mean every night was like the newborn days, but it is tough. Resisting makes it more stressful. Sometimes we have to surrender and know that this stage will pass. My most clingy, crying and cranky baby who is now 13 — you are in big trouble if you wake her up early! Long gone are the exhausting days with my older two.

      Comforting and reassuring your baby has so many positives. Consider cosleeping (there are safe guidelines, just like cot sleeping). There are some great articles on BB that may help you: (plus others in the postnatal/for mothers section) — lots in the baby sleep section

      The peak SIDS time is 2-5 months so you’re well past that. Also know that 99% of babies will not get SIDS. So you can safely sleep with your baby.

      Our information is based on evidence based best information from trained professionals. Many touting controlled crying do not have infant mental health training or knowledge. The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health advises against it for starters.

      So many parents are stressed and baffled what to do if they can’t CC. My answer is to surrender. The more you fight, the harder it is. Comfort them, sleep with them (safely), get as much support as you can, and don’t feel bad stealing sleep as much as you can. They grow up so fast. What feels like forever now is a blink in time.

      1. I think that suggesting a mother co sleep with her baby is totally irresponsible. SIDS may be rare but that’s not to say it won’t happen. It could happen to any of us. So it’s a no to people sleep training their babies but yes to co sleeping? And what about those of us who have to go back to work? And need to sleep at night? What do you suggest then? Not all babies want to sleep in bed with parents anyway. My son included totally wants space and even on the worst nights would never ever fall asleep on me even if I wanted him to! What then? Everyone parents differently but who is to say someone else is wrong? Whatever works for the family is what’s best.

        1. There are risks of cot sleeping too, but people do it under the guidance of safe sleep guidelines — just like there are safe co-sleeping guidelines. Many SIDS deaths related to co-sleeping were on an unsafe surface, like a sofa where the baby got wedged.

          Advice of putting your baby to sleep on his or her back reduced SIDS significantly. But did you know feeding with formula has long (15 years worth of research) been found to increase the risk of SIDS by 50%? We have a fully referenced article on it, and it’s why SIDS and Kids have added “breastfeed your baby” to their 6 safe sleeping guidelines.

          How about we all respect one another’s researched decisions and choices? 🙂 Most parents who go against the norm are usually well researched.

          1. Dear Gemma,

            Unfortunately your comment on SIDs and your emotional response I would suspect shows that you feel under huge pressure in your personal circumstances.

            However your understanding of the interaction between SIDs and co-sleeping is incorrect. Easily misunderstood as most studies in the area have actually been less than helpful as their design has been deeply flawed.

            However the flaws have not been understood it would appear by either the researchers nor by national entities setting guidelines for parents based on these studies. Unfortunately this has quite possibly lead to more infant deaths and certainly to parental and baby misery as parent try to follow apparent ‘safety’ guidelines which go against what natuer has designed, while still trying to keep up with the pressures of modern life.

            Properly controlled studies on sleep, safety and feeding method are sadly lacking and so incorrect assumptions have been arrived at. A very good place to try to get to grips with sleeping and safety is this slightly older review of sleep research by Dr James McKenna of the Mother and Baby Sleep Lab University of Notre Dame. Hope it might help or at the very least help other parents who might be scared by some of the issues raised.

    1. ABSOLUTELY NOT! Airbags have been known to kill children easily in the front seat. NEVER allow a child of any size to ride in the front seat.
      There are mirrors you can purchase that strap on the back seat so they can see you and vice versa.

    2. Babies should be in the back seat, rear-facing as long as possible (minimum two years). That is where they are safest. It is extremely dangerous to put baby in the front seat.

      1. But does the safety issue arise because of air bags? I ask this cause I genuinely don’t know. Many family cars allow for the switching off of air bags to facilitate babies in the front seats.

  5. My “babies” are 45 and 43. I read the article with interest and discovered that I did things right! We raised happy, healthy children who are now happy, healthy adults. My Mother taught me! Thanks Mom!

  6. I wonder what the breakdown of gender was for the 40%. I would think infant circumcision has a dramatic impact on attachment and security baby boys with their parents.

  7. My boy is turning 2. Up to how old do we consider them a baby and do this? My family says he is too big now and im spoiling him since he now knows how and when to get his way.

  8. I am profoundly disappointed in the article. I do not at all have issues with the original article- from a project done in the UK in 2014. It is the subtle shift from the message of the report about the importance of PARENTAL bonding and attachment to Yvette’s repeatedly putting only mothers in the advice she gives: “allowing a mother and baby to remain undisturbed ” …”so that eye contact between mother and baby would be strong right from the start”…”they also reduce the social interaction between mother and baby, such as eye contact, talking and touching “…”How you handle night-time parenting can make a big difference to the connection between mother and baby” Perhaps this is an unconscious bias but it is not good advice.
    The original Study says (for example)
    “The bond that children develop with their parents, particularly as a babies and toddlers, is fundamental to their flourishing. Mothers and fathers help their children develop secure attachment by caring for them in a way that is warm, sensitive and consistent. When parents tune into and respond to their
    needs, cries or distress and are a dependable source of comfort, children learn how to manage their own feelings and behaviour, and develop confidence and self-reliance. With the right early parenting, children develop a secure attachment to their mothers and fathers, a base from which they can thrive.” Baby Bonds
    Parenting, attachment and a secure base for children
    Research by Sophie Moullin, Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook
    March 2014

  9. I would just like to politely add that, while I accept anyone’s personal choices and methods, there isnot a one-size-fits-all with any aspect of parenting. We did controlled crying with our son, and he is a very secure three and a half year old boy who is VERY bonded to me. We are so close I can barely describe; he is like part of me. I do not believe that the controlled crying harmed him, and frankly I am a better mommy to him because I generally get 8 hours of sleep a night. He had slept 11 hours a night since infancy. I only have issues with CIO when a parent literally leaves the room and just ignores the baby until they fall asleep. That is cruel obviously, but not everyone can cosleep or deal with waking every night for a year or two. That doesn’t mean a child is going to be harmed for life.

  10. After having my own baby and researching our “conventional” methods of parenting here in the US vs more evidence based practices i.e “attachment” parenting and how they do it in my husband’s home country (Japan) and in other places around the world, I breastfeed, babywear, cosleep, everything, and I really think that is the reason my daughter is so well-adjusted and confident…..and the polar opposite of “clingy”!
    I don’t have a bond with my parents and now thinking about it….I was put in a separate room to sleep from birth (with an alarm if my heart stopped because I was very premature and weak) and my parents bragged about how they slept until 11 and just left me to play in the crib and I was “fine”….from a very young age I never remember feeling secure and like I could depend on them, always shy, low self-esteem…..later they were physically and emotionally abusive. Not saying that all parents who put their kid in a crib are abusive but mine were, and they weren’t wearing me or staying in tune with me.

  11. I am a nurse manager for Labor and Delivery. Where did you find the picture of the cosleeping hospital bed? We tried some add on options and trialed them, but they were not safe (movement with the beds…). Can you give me the website product data for the bed shown in the Facebook photo? I cannot find it.

    We work very hard to keep our mommies and babies and families together.

    Thank you,

  12. I like the information in this article and it’s focus on attachment, however, the way it’s presented can make the many anxious mothers out there more anxious about providing the best care for her baby. There is this message that if your baby cries too often then he/she will be emotionally damaged. Isn’t that how the “helicopter parents” were created?

  13. I think this article is based on a false premise. In my experience, parents that are intentional enough about their parenting to read an article like this are not going to have children with bonding issues.

    1. Many parents don’t read articles like this though. BellyBelly is a gentle parenting website, and our content focuses on this topic. So those who are avid followers tend to think this way. However, we also receive lots of traffic via google from around the world, and there is a huge mish mash of parenting styles and preferences. Even on our Facebook page, you just need to read responses to articles to see that people are on a huge spectrum of beliefs and preferences. Some believe babies need to learn to be independent and self soothe from a very young age. Others believe babies learn best through love and attachment.

      1. While it is true that parents hold differing views and preferences for raising children, it is not true that teaching babies “to be independent and self soothe” and babies learning best “through love and attachment” are mutually exclusive. One can successfully encourage independence, good attachment and surround a baby with love. Attachment theory-based Circle of Security includes opportunities for a child to be independent and explore their world and opportunities to return to the caregiver for support. Surely it is our jobs as parents to help our children feel safe enough so that they can be independent?

  14. This article does not take in to account the number of children that are in truly neglectful or abusive homes, but gives the impression that parents who intentionally and lovingly interact with their children on a daily basis may suddenly find that their child has not formed a strong attachment to them. Look around you and ask yourself if that is accurate. I certainly have not seen that. But I have seen children from neglectful backgrounds in which their needs are routinely ignored have attachment issues that will likely effect them the rest of their lives. A parent that is intentional enough in their parenting to read an article like this is highly unlikely to have a child w/attachment issues.

  15. I’m curious why a comment I left on this post over a month ago still hasn’t been published? My view was that this post does a serious disservice to parents by not stating that the views expressed here are opinion, NOT taken directly from the cited research. I’m disappointed, BellyBelly!

    1. All the comments for this article are approved. I can only see this one from you.

      As for your point, yes we posted the study, then had a discussion. There are lots of links to further information and there is lots of research and evidence behind it. Recently I published an article with comments from the world’s leading baby sleep researchers, about CIO and controlled crying. They all disagree with it. I can only guess your business involves methods which offer opposite advice of this article, which is why you’re so upset about it.

      1. Hi Kelly, No, I’m not upset because my business involves methods which offer opposing advice. I work with high need babies, many of whom sleep very poorly. I’m not a sleep consultant, and I encourage parents to do whatever they need to to help their babies sleep: wear them, drive them around, co-sleep, and yes, gentle sleep learning when all else fails. My disagreement over this post had absolutely nothing to do with that. The research study you shared above is a great one…it’s super important for parents to understand the risk factors for poor attachment. However, the actual study states absolutely nothing about any of the points in your discussion; attachment is threatened when parents had a poor attachment with their own parents, when they come from chronically poor families, etc. I think the discussion would have been more helpful if it actually covered those points, rather than suggesting that failing to baby wear, or allowing your baby to cry (even while attended to) damaged that attachment…which was not the point of the study at all. In fairness to your readers, I think it’s important to delineate which points are yours, and which are from the study.

  16. Thank you for this article! It makes my fiancé and I feel better about what we are doing! So many people tell us “let him cry it out it’s good for his lungs,” but I can’t handle letting him cry it out. It makes me feel stressed out and sick to my stomach. I was going to try sleep training him when he turns 3 months but I’m not anymore. He was sleeping in a rocker right next to our bed but was waking up a lot so I moved him into our bed between us and he has been sleeping so well and wakes up so much happier. I have been getting a lot of grief about bed sharing and how it will damage my relationship with my fiancé but honestly it has brought us closer. We get our little family time and are able to cuddle all together and just lay together watching this amazing blessing we have created.
    So thank you for writing this and reassuring my mind and heart that what we are doing isn’t horrible or wrong

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