What is secure attachment?
Attachment is the unique emotional relationship between your baby and you, as their primary caregiver. It is a key factor in the way your infant’s brain organises itself and how your child develops socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The quality of the attachment bond varies.
- A secure attachment bond stems from the wordless emotional exchange that draws the two of you together, ensuring that your infant feels safe and calm enough to experience optimal development of their nervous system. Secure attachment provides your baby with the best foundation for life: an eagerness to learn, a healthy self-awareness, trust, and consideration for others.
- An insecure attachment bond, one that fails to meet your infant’s need for safety and understanding, can lead to confusion about their own identity and difficulties with learning and relating to others in later life.
The attachment process is interactive and dynamic. Both you and your baby participate in an exchange of nonverbal emotional cues that make your baby feel understood and safe.
Even in the first days of life, your baby picks up on your emotional cues—your tone of voice, your gestures, and your emotions—and sends you signals by crying, cooing, mimicking facial expressions, and eventually smiling, laughing, pointing, and even yelling, too. In return, you watch and listen to your baby’s cries and sounds, and respond to their cues, at the same time as you tend to their need for food, warmth, and affection. Secure attachment grows out of the success of this nonverbal communication process between you and your baby.
A secure attachment bond teaches your baby to trust you, to communicate their feelings to you, and eventually to trust others as well. As you and your baby connect with one another, your baby learns how to have a healthy sense of self and how to be in a loving, empathic relationship.
Secure attachment causes the parts of your baby’s brain responsible for social and emotional development, communication, and relationships to grow and develop in the best way possible. This relationship becomes the foundation of your child’s ability to connect with others in a healthy way. Qualities that you may take for granted in adult relationships—like empathy, understanding, love, and the ability to be responsive to others—are first learned in infancy.
When babies develop a secure attachment bond, they may find it easier to:
- Develop fulfilling intimate relationships
- Maintain emotional balance and feel confident and good about themselves
- Enjoy being with others
- Rebound from disappointment and loss
- Share their feelings and seek support
Nature has programmed mothers and fathers as well as their infants to have a “falling in love” experience through secure attachment. The joy you experience as you connect with your infant goes a long way to relieve fatigue from lack of sleep and the stress of learning how to care for your baby.
The bonding process releases endorphins in your body that motivate you, give you energy, and make you feel happy. Creating a secure attachment with your infant may take a little effort, but the rewards are huge for both of you.
Secure attachment doesn’t happen overnight. It is an on-going partnership between you and your baby. As time goes on, it will become easier to understand the cries, interpret the signals, and respond to your baby’s needs for food, rest, love, and comfort—try to stay patient with yourself and your baby as you learn about each other.
Babies communicate most effectively when they are in a quiet and alert state, and so do you. As hard as it may be, it is important to take care of yourself in order to build a secure attachment bond with your infant.
Try to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make you cranky, listless, and irritable. Some parents have found it helpful to go to bed early and let their partner stay up to help settle the baby or give a late feed, or if possible at least one morning a week sleep late.
Ask for support around the house. Especially in the newborn stages, get as much help as you can from your partner, family, or friends.
Find some time for “me” time. Caring for a young infant is demanding, and taking some time away can help you parent more effectively. An hour in a coffee shop, a walk, a yoga class, or doing something you want to do can provide some perspective and renewed energy.
Since babies can’t communicate verbally, they are especially attuned to signs of anxiety or stress. Babies need outside help to calm down. An anxious caregiver can actually add to the baby’s stress, making them harder to soothe. When you are feeling stressed, try to find ways to calm down before you interact with your baby.
- Take a deep breath. This may mean letting your baby cry a minute longer so that you can take a deep breath before picking your baby up and trying to soothe them.
- Ask for help. Don’t think you have to do it all yourself. Try to enlist the help of your partner, friends, family members, or a babysitter to help hold or care for your baby during fussy times of the day.
- Take a walk. Fresh air and a change of scenery can work wonders for you and your baby. During particularly stressful times, try making a change in environment and see if it helps you and your baby calm down.
Ideally, a secure attachment bond develops without a hitch. But if either you or your baby is dealing with a problem that interferes with your ability to relax and focus on one another, a secure attachment bond can be delayed or interrupted.
Parents who themselves did not experience a secure attachment bond when they were infants may have trouble emotionally connecting with their babies. Other challenges that can get in the way of your ability to bond with your baby include:
- Depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems
- Drug or alcohol problems
- High levels of stress (from financial problems, lack of support, overwork, etc.)
- An abusive, neglected, or chaotic childhood history
- Living in an unsafe environment
- Mainly negative memories of your own childhood experiences
Please do contact your health visitor or GP if you feel you would like to talk to someone further if this causes you worry or anxiety and feel you would benefit from some support.
In households where the mother is the breadwinner and the partner stays at home, it is equally important for the partner—as the infant’s primary caretaker—to connect emotionally with his baby.
The kind of multitasking required to care for a baby while simultaneously interconnecting emotionally with the infant can be harder for partners (information travels more easily across the part of the brain known as the corpus callosum in women, making multitasking of this nature easier).
Partners should take be equally taking a role in
- Bottle feeding. Dad can form a special bond with his infant when handling feedings and diaper changes by looking into his baby’s eyes, smiling, and talking.
- Talking, reading, or singing to your baby. Even though your baby doesn’t understand what you’re saying, hearing dad’s calm, reassuring voice conveys safety.
- Playing peek-a-boo and mirroring your baby’s movements and mimicking your baby’s cooing and other vocalizations.
- Holding and touching your baby as much as possible. Fathers can keep babies close by using a front baby carrier, pouch, or sling during daily activities.
Myths and facts about secure attachment
Myth: “My baby is attached to me because I gave birth to them.”
Fact: Infants have independent nervous systems that may be different from yours. What makes you feel good may not be the same thing that makes your infant feel good. So unless you look and listen to your infant’s emotional cues, you won’t understand his or her individual needs.
Myth: “Secure attachment and love are the same thing.”
Fact: Bonding and attachment happen instinctively between mothers and babies, but, unfortunately, loving your baby doesn’t automatically result in secure attachment. Secure attachment develops from your ability to manage your stress, respond to your baby’s cues, and successfully soothe your infant.
Myth: “I am having a hard time reading my baby’s signs and I can’t always figure out what he or she wants, so my baby must not be securely attached.”
Fact: It is not possible or necessary to understand your baby’s emotional needs all the time in order to develop a secure attachment bond. As long as you recognise the disconnect and attempt a repair, the relationship will stay strong and may even grow stronger as a result of repairing the disconnect.
Myth: “Always responding to their needs makes babies spoiled.”
Fact: On the contrary, the more responsive you are to an infant’s needs, the less “spoiled” the baby will become as they get older. Bonding creates trust, and children with secure attachments tend to be more independent, not less.