As a parent, you play different roles—teacher, friend, disciplinarian, caregiver, and, most importantly, an attachment figure. Why is an attachment figure so important?
Attachment between a baby and a parent occurs naturally. Just as parents experience a strong connection with the baby after birth, the baby also gets attached to the parents. Attachment develops when you respond to your baby’s needs in a warm, consistent, and sensitive way.
Read this MomJunction post to know about why and how to build a secure attachment with your child.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment is a special emotional relationship between a baby and a parent or primary caregiver that makes a child feel safe, protected, and secure (1).
It is not about playing with your baby, feeding them, setting limits (disciplining) for them, or teaching them new skills. It is about providing a safe haven or acting as a source of comfort (1).
The emotional connection formed through nonverbal communication between the baby and the parent can affect the overall development of the child (2).
How Does Secure Attachment Develop?
- The process of secure attachment involves sharing, interacting, and connecting with the baby. Most importantly, you and your baby share nonverbal emotional cues, which help the baby to feel safe around you.
- Your baby picks up cues from your tone of voice, body language, touch, and body movements or gestures. The baby then tries to communicate with you using different signals such as crying, cooing, or making faces. As they grow, these cues can change to pointing, smiling, laughing, or even yelling.
- When you notice, understand, and respond promptly to all these cues by providing them food, comfort, or affection, the baby eventually develops a secure attachment to you.
Besides, when you or the caregiver attends to the baby’s needs in a loving or sensitive way, such as picking up the baby or promptly attending to them, the baby feels secure in expressing their needs or even negative emotions. They show a preference towards that caregiver and seek their comfort.
Secure Attachment In The Initial Months
Here, let us discuss how attachment is formed in the initial months (3).
- Stage 1: This stage is the asocial stage. Until the babies are six weeks old, they do not show any specific attachment to a caregiver or parent. When the baby cries and fusses, it usually attracts response or attention from the caregiver.
- Stage 2: From the age of six weeks to seven months, babies prefer primary or secondary caregivers for their needs. This is the indiscriminate stage where the babies respond to almost anyone who approaches them.
- Stage 3: Between the ages of seven and nine months, babies start discriminating and begin to show a strong attachment to one specific person or caregiver, generally the mother. At this stage, they may also show anxiety or weariness around unfamiliar people.
- Stage 4: After the babies reach the age of nine months, they begin to form bonds with multiple people apart from the mother or primary caregiver. These people can include the father, siblings, grandparents, or baby-sitter. It indicates that babies eventually become social.
Characteristics Of Secure Attachment
Children with secure attachment treat the parent as a base for security. The characteristics of babies with secure attachment include the following (4).
- Proximity maintenance: Babies want to be near the people they are attached to or someone they would like to be with.
- Safe haven: Babies return to the attachment figure for comfort and safety when they sense fear, threat, or distress.
- Secure base: Babies make the attachment figure a base of security from where they explore the new surroundings.
- Separation distress: Babies experience anxiety in the absence of the attachment figure.
Signs Your Baby Has A Secure Attachment
With secure attachment, the baby develops a good foundation for life and a feeling of safety. This results in their eagerness to learn, trust, and empathize as they grow up (2, 4).
- Securely attached babies become upset when their parents, usually the mothers, leave them but become calm and happy as soon as they return.
- Babies are comfortable while playing and exploring new things when the parent or primary caregiver is around.
- When these children or babies get distressed or frightened, they seek comfort from the parent or primary caregiver.
- Securely attached babies greet the return of the parent with positive behavior and emotions.
- A securely attached baby accepts any contact initiated by the parent promptly.
- Although these children or babies may be comfortable with strangers to some extent, they prefer the company of the parent or primary caregiver to strangers.
Why Is Secure Attachment Important?
Secure attachment results from the interactive exchange of nonverbal cues between the baby and the parent. It is important due to the following reasons.
- Later in life, securely attached children are more likely to trust the parent and effectively communicate their feelings or needs. Eventually, this enables them to trust others.
- Children learn and develop a healthy sense of self-awareness. This helps them to form loving, healthy, and empathetic relationships with others.
- Due to secure attachment, parts of the brain that are responsible for the child’s overall growth (social and emotional behavior, communication, and relationship building) develop well.
Moreover, children with secure attachment are found to
- Form healthy close relationships.
- Enjoy the company of others.
- Have confidence and positive feelings about themselves.
- Maintain emotional balance, that is, handle difficult situations that may cause stress or fear.
- Seek help and support.
- Open up about their feelings.
- Recover from loss or disappointment.
How To Develop A Secure Attachment?
Secure attachment takes time to develop. The key is to remain patient as you and your baby get to know each other. You may follow these parenting tips when trying to develop a secure attachment with your baby.
1. Be understanding and responsive to your baby’s cues
Although all sounds and cries of your baby may sound the same to you in the initial stages, they are not. Look for different cues such as rubbing of eyes, curling of fingers, tightly closed eyes, and hyperactivity.
- Look out for your baby’s facial expressions and movements. For instance, babies may respond by making body movements if they want to be cuddled or held.
- Try to know what the sounds mean. For instance, notice the difference between a low-pitched crying or high-pitched crying (wailing). Babies make different sounds when they are hungry, tired, or sleepy.
- Watch out for the kind of things your baby enjoys. It may be music or going outside. For instance, some babies like rocking and some others like being walked.
2. Communicate and play with your baby
Spend some fun and happy times with your baby. Touching, interacting, smiling, and laughing are also equally important for a baby’s development. The nonverbal cues of communication between a baby and mother include the mother’s body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and touch. Funny faces, silly sounds, and cooing are all part of engaging with your child.
3. Do not strive to be a perfect parent
Forming a secure attachment doesn’t mean that you have to be a perfect parent. You should not worry if, sometimes, you are not able to understand the cue or you miss the cues. That is completely fine as long as you are trying to work that out. The good news is that even if there is a disconnect, you are trying to repair it.
4. Involve your partner in the process
The role of a father is equally important in developing a secure attachment. They can help and share responsibilities, such as bottle-feeding the baby, playing peek-a- boo, reading, singing, talking, touching, and mimicking.
Possible Challenges In Forming A Secure Attachment
Sometimes, it may not be easy to form a secure attachment with a child. The problem can arise from the parent or the child.
- Challenges to Forming a Secure Attachment with a Baby
- In some cases, a baby’s restricted brain development during pregnancy or difficulties during childbirth may lead to developmental issues in the nervous system. This may curtail their learning or understanding abilities.
- Babies who have been adopted or spend considerable time in neonatal ICUs (separated from the parent) may feel unsafe, confused, or stressed.
- Caregivers may find it difficult to soothe babies who are always crying.
If the caregiver is consistent, warm, and responsive to the baby’s need, the baby may eventually settle down to initiate or be responsive to the attachment process.
- Challenges to Forming a Secure Attachment with an Older Child
In older children, the following instances may affect the development of secure attachment. However, this list is not conclusive.
- The child has been abused or maltreated.
- The child has moved several homes as a result of foster care or adoption.
- The child has been in hospital away from the parents.
- The child has received an unpredictable response towards his needs or expectations.
- The child has received attention from caregivers only by displaying extreme or negative behavior or acting out.
Myths And Facts About Secure Attachment
- Myth: A secure attachment can develop between a baby and multiple people.
Fact: A baby can form a secure attachment with only one person—an attachment figure who is persistent in attending and responding to the baby’s need. However, a baby can interact positively or form a loving bond with others too.
- Myth: A mother forms attachment naturally as she is the one who gave birth to the baby.
Fact: Babies have an independent nervous system, meaning they may not react the same way as you do. You need to watch out for different emotional non-verbal cues. You need to be responsive and attentive to their needs, especially in the time of fear or distress, to form a secure attachment.
- Myth: Attachment works one way—you respond to your baby’s cues.
Fact: The attachment process involves interacting, sharing, or connecting with the baby—it is a two-way process. As you respond to your baby’s needs, your baby also responds to your reactions.
- Myth: Love and secure attachment are the same.
Fact: No, they are not. Loving your baby doesn’t mean that you have a secure attachment with your baby. Forming a secure attachment is an ongoing process. Therefore, you need to understand the baby’s cues and respond positively to form an attachment.
- Myth: Stress levels do not affect the attachment process.
Fact: A mother or caregiver needs to avoid stress or anxiety. Babies cannot calm themselves—they need a caregiver who can soothe them. If a mother is anxious or stressed, she may add to the baby’s anxiety and find it difficult to soothe the baby.
If the mother or caregiver overreact to the child’s cues (through giving care), the anxiety transmission to the child is going to probably increase. This is a main event associated to the development of emotional instability later over life span, including adulthood.
Secure attachment doesn’t happen overnight. It is an ongoing process between you and your child. You do not have to be a perfect parent, but a responsive and understanding one to form this attachment.
When children feel secure, safe, and protected, they grow up to be confident, empathetic, trusting, and self-aware individuals.
Have any useful insights on developing secure attachment? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.
2. Mary D. Salter Ainsworth; Infant–Mother Attachment; American Psychologist (1979).
3. Joseph D. Sclafani; The Educated Parent: Recent Trends in Raising Children; Greenwood Publishing Group (2004).
4. David C. Bell; Attachment Without Fear; Journal of Family Theory & Review (2009).