Your Baby Will Be Fine Even If You’re Not Always ‘On’ With Them
New research into precisely which parental actions foster secure attachment is offering a reassurance to parents everywhere: If you’re at least fully engaged and responsive whenever you’re with your baby 50% of the time or more, the kid will be alright.
The research, led by Susan S. Woodhouse, PhD, an expert in infant attachment at Lehigh University, U.S., sought to establish the exact types of interactions that go toward building a secure attachment, and quantify the amount necessary to do so.
Previous research suggests infants learn in a statistical manner; as they have more and more experiences and interactions, they have more and more data points from which they synthesize an average conclusion. While this has been demonstrated in infants’ language acquisition, Woodhouse’s team found this was true for establishing secure attachment, too: “infants whom caregivers soothed from crying to calm in a chest-to-chest position for at least half of the observed episodes of infant crying would learn that, on average, they could trust their caregivers to provide a secure base,” the team said in a statement.
“It really is a different way of looking at the quality of parenting,” Woodhouse said in a statement. “It’s looking at this idea of ‘does the job get done in the end?’ and it allows us to see strengths … that our previous ideas about sensitivity don’t let us see.”
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Previous ideas about sensitivity have been dominated by a theory of early child development first proposed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Attachment theory, as it came to be known, was subsequently bolstered by a variety of studies, most notably one by Edward Tronick, a psychologist, called The Still Face Experiment, which demonstrated that infants feel distress without animated, visible emotional engagement from their primary caregivers.
From this and other studies, experts coalesced around the conclusion that infant attachment — aka the bond between a baby and their primary caregiver(s) — can take one of two broad forms. Secure attachment is built when a baby feels their caregiver will reliably provide closeness, emotional support and protection; children who are securely attached to their caregivers may show distress upon separation, but are able to compose themselves because they trust the caregiver will return. This style of attachment sets up children for healthy relationships throughout their lives. Insecure attachment, on the other hand, takes several forms, each of which are broadly characterized by an infant’s uncertainty whether the caregiver will respond to their needs, and each of which are linked to distrust and insecurity in later relationships.
Attachment theory was taken to its extreme conclusion by Dr. William Sears, an American pediatrician, who devoted his life to advocating for “attachment parenting,” a style of childrearing characterized by maintaining physical touch with children as much as possible, and being in sync with, and warmly and immediately responding to, any expressed need. Like most methods that claim to have found The Way of raising a well-adjusted child to adulthood, attachment parenting quickly captured public imagination and garnered devotees, mostly among well-to-do stay-at-home mothers who have both the money and time to follow its rigors. Understandably, research has found establishing secure attachment (never mind attachment parenting) to be more of a struggle for socioeconomic classes who face more resource constraints on familial interactions.
Rather than focus on what to do to maximize secure attachment, Woodhouse’s team identified ways parents can minimize interactions that contribute to insecure attachment. After studying 83 diverse but low-income mother-infant pairs at regular intervals during the babies’ first year, the researchers concluded that secure bonding is less about the immediacy of parents’ response than it is about soothing an upset infant to calmness.
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They also identified a handful of parental responses that contribute to infant insecurity, including: turning the baby away from the parent’s chest before crying ends; rough handling; harsh verbal tones; verbal instructions not to cry; and scolding the baby for their negative character. Additionally, “if the mother did frightening things when the baby cried, like hard yelling or growling at the baby, or suddenly looming toward the baby’s face while the baby was upset, even if it only happened one time, the baby would be insecure,” Woodhouse said in a statement. “Similarly, if the mother did anything really frightening even when the baby wasn’t in distress, like saying ‘bye-bye’ and pretending to leave, throwing the baby in the air to the point they would cry, failure to protect the baby, like walking away from the changing table or not protecting them from an aggressive sibling, or even what we call ‘relentless play’ — insisting on play and getting the baby worked up when it is too much — that also leads to insecurity.”
Such behaviors in writing may seem obvious to avoid, but anyone who has had to deal with a crying infant after several sleepless nights can attest to both feeling helpless and not thinking clearly. The good news is: “Holding a crying infant until fully soothed, even 50% of the time, promotes security,” the researchers said in a statement. “Such a message could help parents increase positive caregiving without raising anxiety regarding ‘perfect parenting’ or setting the bar so high as to make change unattainable in families that face multiple stressors.”
In addition to negative interactions, however, some interactions intended to be positive may also increase infants’ sense of insecurity; overprotective behavior, like interrupting or redirecting play when no danger presented, was found to also contribute to insecure attachment, researchers said.
“Some moms really had trouble allowing the baby to explore and were very insistent on the baby doing certain things or turning the baby’s head to look at the mom,” Woodhouse said in the statement. “In really intrusive parenting, if we saw that, the baby was insecure.”
It’s worth noting that while Woodhouse’s research, like most in this genre, involved mother-baby pairs, experts agree secure attachment can and should be established by any caregiver, including fathers.
Woodhouse calls the team’s findings “paradigm shifting,” and suggests a change in terminology that reflects it — from establishing secure attachment, to establishing a secure base.