The hallmarks of attachment security are availability, responsiveness, and sensitivity; hence, it is not just the presence of the parent, but the quality of the parental response—the parent’s emotional availability and sensitivity—that form the heart of a child’s security. When a baby is cared for in a wholly sensitive way, a secure relationship will likely develop and form a foundation of health to underpin the child’s entire life.
Babies who have an attuned, sensitive, and responsive caregiver more skillfully and joyfully negotiate the world. They are happier, less stressed, more engaged; they recover more quickly from fearful or upsetting experiences; and they are more confident and relaxed in social situations.
The fear that responding to a baby’s every need will reinforce needy behavior and produce dependence is a myth; in fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that children who are consistently soothed and comforted and whose emotional needs are dependably met are the ones who emerge with the stability and independence we seek to promote.
THE ROLE OF EMOTION
Babies are not born with an ability to independently regulate their physiological or emotional states, but rely instead on a caregiver to do this with and for them. Babies need assistance in managing their emotions so that they don’t become overwhelmed. Whether it’s fear, sadness, surprise, or excitement, babies can quickly succumb to emotional intensity.
Calming down—or being able to be calmed down—after feeling emotionally overwhelmed, demands a relationship. Thus, it is critical that babies be helped to maintain emotional balance, and to return to a regulated state when out of balance. When dysregulated, or out of equilibrium, babies are vulnerable to the deleterious effects of stress.
Typically, crying is the only way an infant has of communicating stress. With adults, the “fight or flight” response mobilizes our bodies to handle difficult or potentially overwhelming situations; for a baby, “fight or flight” works only if someone comes to fight for or flee with them.
Hence, leaving them to cry alone only increases their stress levels, teaches them that they cannot rely on their caregivers for assistance, and opens them to the cycle of hyper-arousal and dissociation.
Nurturing touch, warm interaction, loving play, and sensitive comfort are at the heart of healthy brain development, secure attachment, and optimal child development. In simple terms, mothering is brain building.
How we respond to our babies’ needs around sleep, feeding, separations, play, and other day-to-day subtleties may go unnoticed or undervalued, but this endless cycle of mothering is what the science of attachment is actually talking about. It is not about flash cards or fancy gadgets or advice from a book. It is about following your heart, listening to your child, and deepening your love.
For example, eye contact and gazing between a mother and baby are associated with a mutually reinforcing cycle of pleasurable sensations resulting from hormones cascading in both their bodies. A similar reaction occurs with skin-to-skin contact like infant massage and holding a baby, which, like eye contact, produce “love hormones.”
One such “love hormone” is oxytocin, a peptide hormone important for the creation of positive emotions and healthy social connections. Oxytocin inhibits the negative impact of stress and increases the healing rate of wounds. It is essential for bonding and feeling good in relationships.
A day full of the tasks and interactions of motherhood might make you feel that you’ve “gotten nothing done” because you’ve been in the cycle of care. However, it is these very interactions that are at the heart and soul of the best brain building possible.
In an optimal breastfeeding relationship, mother and baby “talk” to each other almost constantly. Because a newborn baby needs to feed often and around the clock, mother and baby stay in close contact. Breastfeeding promotes eye contact and skin-to-skin contact, both of which are inherent in the breastfeeding experience, and essential for attachment.
Through breastfeeding, a mother learns her baby’s cues for hunger, as well as other needs for closeness. By feeding on demand, a mother not only establishes an adequate milk supply but also teaches her baby that she will sensitively and effectively respond to the baby’s fluctuating needs. Through that awareness she sets the stage for her baby’s ability to feel fully nurtured and secure.
Over time, this intense need will lessen as her baby moves toward greater and greater independence, but the foundation of understanding and communication between mother and child will remain. This is correlated with research that finds that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive, and shows a link between attachment security and breastfeeding.
WHY NIGHTTIME INTERACTION MATTERS
Nighttime interaction plays an equally important role in the development of secure attachment. There is perhaps no aspect of new parenthood as fraught with confusion and stress as infant sleep. Mothers are often judged by how “well” their babies sleep, and, in the haze of fatigue, they often wonder how they should be encouraging sleep.
In infancy, sleep has distinct patterns and features different from those of adult sleep. Sleeping “like a baby” does not mean long stretches of deep, uninterrupted sleep; instead, it means:
Shorter sleep cycles
Significant amount of time spent in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep,
Delayed establishment of a circadian (24-hour) rhythm
Sleep mechanism not fully formed until between three and five years.
Night waking in infancy is not a bad thing, especially from the point of view of survival, optimal development, and emotional connection. Night waking appears to serve several protective, reparative, and attachment functions. Infants enter REM sleep first, have shorter sleep cycles, and spend much greater amounts of time in light/REM sleep. By spending less time in deep sleep, they get greater brain stimulation, and more access to breastmilk and maternal presence.
Babies are unable to make sense of a parent who is attentive at certain times of the day but unresponsive at sleep times. Attachment research shows that this sort of inconsistent or unresponsive care is associated with insecure attachment. Additionally, neurological studies show that the pain of emotional separation registers the same way for a baby as does physical pain. The pain a baby experiences at being left alone to cry is clearly quite intense.
It is by meeting our babies’ needs that they learn healthy independence, including sleep independence. In fact, research shows that mothers who co-sleep are not only more aware of and responsive to their infants’ needs, but also that babies who have co-slept regularly have the greatest levels of self-reliance and social independence.
THE HISTORY WE BRING
One of the most intriguing findings of more than three decades of research into attachment parenting is that secure attachment in a baby is strongly related to his primary caregivers’ own emotional health. One hallmark of emotional health in parents is the ability to deeply understand themselves and their own early life experiences. This ability may not come naturally to everyone, but it can be learned and strengthened.
Learning about the components of optimal parenting and healthy attachment can often evoke sadness. We are faced with the disappointing awareness that our own growing up may have included experiences that were not in our best interest. At the same time, as we learn more about what children need, we may feel guilty about how we have interacted with our own children.
It is important to understand that most of the issues we faced in our own early years are parts of a pattern many generations long; we are not responsible for the messages we received. However, those messages shape the way we form attachments, and most often we are unaware of their power. It is by gaining new awareness that things can begin to change. We can’t change the past, but we can change what we do now.
MEET THEIR LEGITIMATE NEEDS
Contrary to popular misconception, it is by our nurturing of our children and meeting their needs that they grow into strong, compassionate, and independent people. We can trust our hearts and follow our children’s lead. They will take us where we need to go.
Lauren Porter is a clinical social worker, family therapist and PhD candidate, as well as Co-Director of the New Zealand-based Centre for Attachment. Her professional focus is the merging of attachment theory, neuroscience and wisdom traditions. She is the mother of two.