Stock image by Noam Armonn
Over the last 80 years, developmental psychologist have come to learn that the dynamics that take place between a primary caregiver and infant have a life long effect on us. Having a secure attachment during infancy, and into childhood, sets us up for emotional and social successes in adulthood. There are 3 essential functions in a secure attachment.
1) Provides a sense of safety and security
2) Regulates Emotions
3) Offers a secure base from which to explore from
In spite of years of research on attachment, psychologists have actually done a poor job of communicating what a secure attachment is and how to form one. In the meantime, an entire parenting movement has taken the word attachment and turned it into a modern lifestyle. While intentions have meant well many parents are still left feeling confused, with guilt and stress, when it comes to the word "attachment".
Attachment Parenting International is based on 8 basic principles and centers around breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing and emotional responsiveness. Don't get me wrong, this is all wonderful things to think about and tune in to. It's certainly better parenting advice than maybe our parents, or grandparents had. This is a softer more baby centered approach and I'm certainly all for that. But, as I have found out in my teachings with families all around Boston and New York, is that advice is often taken literally and to the extreme. I have Mothers who think breastfeeding and co-sleeping is essential to attachment. There is no evidence that doing these things will produce a secure bond.
It simply comes down to the quality of interactions that matters. A mother may breastfeed, but be completely tuned out; being very mechanical, or insensitive to what the baby is trying to communicate. A mother may bottle-feed in a very sensitive and loving manner; taking cues from the baby and use the interaction as a way to look, play and talk together. This doesn't mean you have to be attuned to your baby all the time, thats exhausting. Researchers found those with secure attachment were really only synchronized with each other 30% of the time. What is important is that baby develops a trust that the caregiver will meet their needs in a timely manner. And when mismatches occur, its important to repair them. As long as caregiver and baby keep this flow between them; caregiver returning interactions and repairing when they can't, it offers the optimal amount of connection and stress for a baby to develop both confidence and coping, in balance.
The attachment figure doesn't have to be a parent, although it usually is. Babies can form a secure attachment with siblings, grandparents, other relatives, a special adult outside of the family unit and babysitters. Forming lots of secure attachments would be overwhelming for a baby, so they keep their group small and there is a hierarchy. When a baby needs security or safety they don't have time to asses pros and cons of each person, they need to know who is already deemed to be a reliable comfort, with parents usually at the top.
Nothing is more important than a secure attachment. “The emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development," says Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota. He performed a study over a 35 year period and revealed that the quality of attachment in childhood reverberates well into adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for. A secure attachment in childhood instilled a confident and independent adult. Many parents try to instill independence in early childhood, and while I do agree with age appropriate responsibilities, Sroufe's study found there is no pushing independence. Independence is something that blooms naturally from a secure attachment.
A secure attachment doesn't have to only happen in infancy. It can also be something that is lost, but regained. A child may have a secure attachment in the beginning but something like - death or a divorce, could disrupt that attachment. How stressed or available a primary figure is during that time can help mediate the disruption. Children who have already had a secure attachment have a tendency to rebound more easily. On the other hand an insecure attachment is not a destination either. A great teacher in school may provide a secure attachment and off set any troubles in home life. Therapy can also help, even in adulthood, as it mimics the attachment process. A romantic relationship can be a source of a secure attachment. Growth and change is always possible!
Support matters. Support for both baby and parents. The baby needs to know they are important and parents need a solid social support system in order to form secure attachments. Caregivers should be involved, attentive, sensitive and responsive. "The baby will tell you what to do," Sroufe explains. “They have a limited way of expressing their needs, so they’re not that difficult to read: If they’re fussing, they need something. If their arms are out, they want to be picked up. And if you misread them, they will keep on signaling until you get it right.”
One of the first areas of the brain to develop is the right hemisphere. This is the side that processes emotion and social information. The right hemisphere is developed in the last trimester in utero and a baby is born with having survival functions already developed - like the amygdala and hypothalamus. But the connections happening in these areas develop over the first year (the left brain doesn't start to develop until year 2). You can think of it as the Worlds first roads. They start out small dusty trails but as traffic continues to flow through these streets the road starts to get wider, we realize we need to make the road bigger, stronger. Eventually these small roads become massive highways. When a caregiver is present, attentive, and sensitive to a baby, these pathways in the brain grow stronger and more stable. When we, as caregivers, use our intuition, empathy and feeling to attune to our babies needs we are using our right brains as well! Through “right-brain-to-right brain” reading of each other, the parent and child synchronize their energy, emotions, and communication. Behaviors that most parents are inclined to do naturally—like eye contact and face-to-face interaction, holding and speaking in “parentese” (higher-pitched and slower than normal speech), are all shown to grow the right-brain regions in the baby.
Parenting is hard, there is no doubt about that. It takes time and patience to learn how to read your babys signals. There will be stress, and thats ok. Stress is a part of life, but what we are trying to do is set up a system so baby can learn how to cope with that stress. You'll learn to trust the flow of your right brain and tune in to your babys own unique way of communicating. And babies do their job of drawing you in. They coo, grab on to your finger, gaze up at your face and give you the biggest most sincere smile you have ever seen. Trust in that. Tune in to that. Enjoy that, The sweet elixir of attachment is already underway.
Ansley has been teaching Infant Movement classes since 2013, after studying Developmental Movement with Ellynne Skove. Since completing her training Ansley has taught all over the New York, New Jersey, Boston and now Florida. Ansley is certified in Level 1 Reiki and has completed her 200hr YT. She is passionate about empowering, nurturing and providing care to all families as they encounter the demands and joys of parenthood. Through her work she is able to soulfully fulfil her greatest ambition; to care for others.