How to Build a Secure Attachment with Your Baby
Most new parents have heard the term ‘attachment.’ You know you’ve got to make sure your baby has a secure attachment — but how?
Allow us to break it down.
First, a quick primer on attachment. Attachment theory holds that babies, unable to regulate their own feelings, need a ‘co-regulator’ — someone who could counteract negative experiences like hunger and loneliness with love and responsiveness, eventually enabling babies to grow into children and adults who can self-regulate negative emotions and experiences with their own, positive, self-reactions. This plays into all sorts of other skills — school preparedness, and the ability to form healthy relationships and bonds with others throughout life. Secure attachment simply means the baby feels safe, loved and cared for.
Secure attachment isn’t limited to mothers; though most studies focus on mother-baby bonding, fathers and other primary caregivers, like nannies or grandparents, can and should help establish secure attachment. It also doesn’t mean a physical or personal attachment; secure attachment with, say, a child care provider won’t keep the child from loving or forming a bond with their parents. Secure attachment is literally just fostering in an infant a foundational feeling of well-being and belonging.
How to build secure attachment with your baby
The key to building the bonds of secure attachment with a baby lies in positive interaction, response and consistency. Here are a few more specific tips on how to develop a secure bond with your baby:
Make eye contact.
Making eye contact with an infant who can’t yet fully focus their eyes might seem trivial, but in reality it plays a vital part in communicating emotions. A famous study by Edward Tronick, a psychologist, started by having mothers make eye contact, smile and laugh with their babies. He then had them break eye contact, and look back at the baby without expression. Babies would become confused and try to draw attention from the mother; eventually after no response, the babies started crying. Warm and frequent eye contact is a way of showing the baby they’re cared for. Think about it — if someone avoids making eye contact with you, even as an adult you feel unsettled. Babies aren’t so different.
Have a conversation.
Just because infants can’t talk, doesn’t mean they can’t have a conversation. It’s a way of interaction called serve-and-return (you can read about it more here). Basically it boils down to: When your baby gestures or looks at something or babbles, acknowledge that as an attempt to communicate and respond. Maybe you pick up the toy they’re pointing to and talk about its color (“Are you looking at this blue ball?”). Maybe you comment on the texture of the thing they’re babbling over. (“It feels very soft, doesn’t it?”) Maybe you respond to a cry with a reassurance. (“I know you’re hungry, and don’t worry; dad’s warming up the milk right now.”) This kind of interaction is about engaging with your baby and making them feel they’re part of an exchange of communication.
This is fairly basic — of course you’re not going to neglect your child. But there are some opportunities for responsiveness that you may not have considered. For instance, while many hospitals advise a clocked routine for feeding a baby, organizations like the WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend feeding babies on demand. And even the banal act of sitting and talking with a baby while they eat, massaging a baby yourself, or changing a diaper is an opportunity to share loving touches and provide the kind of care that builds secure attachment.
Babies learn by observing their environment, figuring out patterns and trying to predict what comes next. In chaotic environments, or when the people around them behave unpredictably, they can feel very unsettled. “One of the worst things that goes on in a baby’s life that can cause endless damage is not being able to predict the reactions of other people,” Natasha Kirkham, an expert in child development, recently told the BBC. That’s not to say any deviation from a routine will irrevocably scar a child. But an environment of calm, loving, interactive response from primary caregivers builds the type of secure bonding and attachment with babies that all parents want.
Building the bonds of attachment with a baby isn’t difficult, but it does take time and effort. The good news is, it pays off in spades, giving the child the foundation they need to establish healthy relationships throughout life.