Have you ever wondered how you can best enable your child to thrive emotionally; feel confident; be inquisitive; develop healthy peer relationships; and be able to manage stress? Many of the answers can be found in mother-infant bonding.
Babies actively seek contact with their mothers and try to keep them close by smiling, cooing, looking, clinging, sucking, and following parents. Establishing and maintaining closeness with their mother creates feelings of love, security, and joy.
In the 1950s John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, observed children’s reactions to separations from their mothers, such as hospitalization. He was struck by the sheer intensity of emotion the children experienced during the separation. Through observing the impact of separation, he came to appreciate the importance of emotional bonds. He stated that it is essential for the mental health of the infant that “the infant and the young child experience a warm and intimate and a continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment”.
This close emotional bond that provides safety and protection is at the core of the secure relationship. Throughout life, when we are frightened we want to stay close to an attachment figure.
In the 1960’s Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, observed twelve-to-eighteen–month-old infants through a series of separations and reunions with their mothers. Based on each child’s reaction to the reunion he/she child was classified as securely or insecurely attached to his/her mother.
Types of attachment: secure and insecure
Securely attached infants are aware of their mothers’ presence or absence; they may be more or less distressed by separation from their mother or primary care-giver and seek closeness with their caregiver when he/she returns. Once re-united with his/her mother, the, infant is able to fully calm down after being distressed. The feeling of security is re-established through the renewed contact with his/her mother.
Ainsworth identified two insecure patterns of attachment: ambivalent and avoidant. Infants that show ambivalent attachment are highly distressed at separation but they are not comforted by the reunion with their mother. Their attachment is characterized by ambivalence, frustration, and anger. These infants seek contact with their mothers, and at the same time actively resist it- they kick and cling at the same time.
Infants who show avoidant attachment appear unaware of their mothers’ departure or return and are more interested in playing with toys. According to research, this outward behavior of indifference is misleading as avoidant infants show a pattern of elevated physiological arousal in response to separation, which is not decreased upon mom’s return.
Home observations of parenting
These attachment styles were associated with particular styles of parenting in mothers. According to home observations, researchers found that mothers of securely attached infants were timely and more responsive to the feeding signals and cries of their infants. Mothers of insecure avoidant babies were rejecting or unresponsive of their babies’ distress signals, while mothers of insecure ambivalent babies were inconsistently responsive. Responsive parenting helps children feel that their caregiver is reliable and can be depended on to help at times of need.
The payoff: attachment helps manage stress and arousal
For secure children, their mother is a safe haven- there is an emotional bond that provides comfort at the time of distress. Secure attachment is based on the trust and sense of security that the attachment figure will be available and emotionally responsive at times of need.
Attachment needs can be re-activated at any age during times of high stress such as illness, injury, or adversity. In times of distress, reunion with an attachment figure calms distress and dampens physiological arousal. Repeated experience of comfort is essential in promoting healthy development of the nervous system. The child learns to manage distress and calm him/herself down. Therefore, secure attachment provides a buffer against stress at any later point in life.
Longitudinal studies have found that, without intervention or changes in the family circumstances, the attachment patterns formed in infancy persist over the course of a lifetime.
Securely attached children were found to be more socially competent and had better peer relationships at preschool age. They were also more likely to be leaders and were more liked by their teachers. They were more persistent in solving tasks in comparison to insecurely attached children that were more frustrated and whiny.
Security of attachment may be one of the principal factors in predicting the healthy functioning of children through elementary school and even during the teenage years.
How to foster a secure bond with your baby:
Here are some suggestions of how to develop a secure attachment with your baby:
- Comfort your baby
Do not be afraid to pick your baby up when he/she cries. Your baby needs to feel secure. Responsive mothers create calm and secure children. By repeated experiences of distress followed by comfort, your baby will start internalizing that process and develop self-comforting behaviors.
- Know that bonding takes time
You do not have to be alarmed if you do not have immediate feelings for your baby. Falling in love with your baby may take time- it may not be love at first sight. Remember that attachment develops during the first year through repeated parent-child interactions of comforting, changing, and feeding your baby
- Always seek support
Your ability to care for your baby depends on your life circumstances and how much emotional support you are receiving from your partner and/or family. All moms need support to be able to become the best nurturers for their babies. It is especially important that you ask for help if you feel alone and overwhelmed with the care of your baby- do not try to do it all alone. Do not feel like a bad mom if you cannot take care of your baby all by yourself.
- Think about the larger picture
Babies thrive emotionally because of the overall care they have experienced over time, not because of specific techniques. For instance, a bottle-fed baby whose mother is sensitively attuned (e.g. responds to child cooing, smiling, distress) will do better than a breast-fed baby whose mother is distant. If you cannot breastfeed, you can still be responsive to your baby.
Dr. Irena Milentijevic is a licensed psychologist in private practice who specializes in helping moms and mom wannabes. Her focuses are pregnancy-related issues, pregnancy loss, depression, post-partum depression, and parenting of young children. Her number one priority is to help women feel better about themselves and feel empowered about their choices. Dr.Irena’s offices are located in the Woodlands and in the Houston Medical Center.