When your child is born, you may be excited to bond and attach with your baby but not know the best ways to do so. The Warren Center’s clinical social worker and early intervention specialist, Barbara Heuser, explains why bonding and attachment to your child is important, and provides you with tips on how to strengthen attachment with your child.
What is bonding and attachment?
Bonding can happen before a child is even born, and is the surge of love and tenderness a parent feels towards their child. Attachment is the relationship you build with your baby based on your interactions over time. In order for our children to connect with others throughout their life in a healthy manner, they must first build a foundation of trust with their primary caregiver, according to Heuser.
A baby’s sense of security can be affected, even while in utero. As dad talks to his baby when mom is pregnant, the baby may kick their tiny feet in response to dad’s voice. As mom rubs her pregnant tummy, baby may move towards her hand, and become still and calm as she feels the pressure of mom’s hand. Conversely, if parents have a loud argument, and scream and yell, baby will feel distressed. And, when mother is stressed, babies heart rates can increase, too.
Erik Erickson is a famous developmental psychologist, and he identified critical stages of psycho-social development throughout one’s lifespan. The first critical stage in infancy is “Trust vs. Mistrust,” Erickson explains. Trust is developed when a baby has a need, and parents promptly, consistently, gently and kindly meet that need. For example, your baby cries when they are hungry, you feed your baby, and your baby feels satiated, happy, and content.
What is attunement?
Attunement is a building block for developing trust, and is an important facet of helping your child form a healthy attachment to you. Attunement refers to anticipating your baby’s needs, reading their cues, and meeting those needs even before the baby has cried or expressed their need. For example, you check your baby’s diaper frequently, and change them quickly when they are soiled, so they don’t get cold or develop a rash. Or, you are playing peek-a-boo and being very animated and touching your baby, and your baby fusses and turns away. You recognize your baby is feeling overstimulated and needs a little break, and so you do not force them to continue engaging with you.
As you proactively meet your child’s basic and emotional needs, in time your child learns to trust you, the most important person in their life. By developing trust, your baby will also build up his own internal emotional bank of positive feelings and trust based on all the loving interactions you have deposited. In life, stressful situations occur and there are times a parent cannot provide for their baby’s need immediately or in the way that is most comfortable for their child. But, because of the history of consistent, loving responses in the past, your baby will be secure in knowing that the need will be addressed soon. With that secure internal state, your baby will be able to remain calm and regulate their own emotions and self soothe, even if their need is not immediately addressed.
In early childhood intervention at The Warren Center, we seek to help parents understand the importance of developing a secure attachment with their babies and children. The good news — secure attachment can develop even if the parent is not perfect, but is “good enough.” No parent can be 100% attentive to their child’s needs, 100% of the time. And that’s ok. As long as the majority of interactions are positive and sensitive to your baby’s temperaments and needs, your child will build a sense of trust. Positive attachment leads to self-regulation, feelings of self worth, and the ability to form friendships and be sensitive to others. Successful attachment in infancy and childhood will serve as a template for secure, loving, reliable relationships in later life as you develop intimacy with others.
Here’s some things you can do to strengthen the attachment and feelings of security for your child:
- Skin to skin contact – Cradle and hold your baby gently, skin to skin. Premature babies grow more quickly and thrive when they receive “kangaroo care,” which is having someone hold them skin to skin and rock them while they are in the hospital. Your baby will thrive too, with gentle touch and skin to skin contact.
- Eye contact – Look into your baby’s eyes. As you nurse and feed your baby, you are exactly at the distance your baby can see and focus. Look lovingly into their eyes as you feed them.
- Intentional play – As an infant, you can use “mirroring,” in which you are face to face with your baby, and mirror their facial expressions and sounds. Your baby senses you are interested in them, and will want to engage with you. As they get older and can tolerate increased stimulation, you can play fun active games like peek-a-boo, or laying on floor during tummy time face-to-face and giggling and laughing together as you shake a little rattle back and forth.
Here’s a book recommendation for you:
As your child grows, connecting with them on a day to day basis is key to their emotional health. An excellent book, “The Power of Showing Up,” written by Daniel Siegel, M.D., along with his colleague, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., provides the following guidelines. (4) They advocate for the four “S’s.” The first, is keep your child “safe,” and avoid becoming a source of fear or threat. Our second job is to make sure our kids feel “seen.” We do this when we attune to how they are feeling, and seek to understand their behavior and their internal state. We connect with how they are feeling, and respond appropriately to the underlying state, not just the behavior. Third, our children need to be “soothed” when they are distressed. They may still hurt, but they won’t be suffering alone with their internal pain. And the fourth S stands for “secure,” and is formed when you have parented and used the first three S’s. Your child will feel secure, and will know you see them, you understand them, and you are there for them when things go wrong.
So be present, attuned, and enjoy your little ones and make it a priority to spend one on one time connecting with them, even when life is busy. The benefits will be life changing for your child.