Ed note: This week's column on attachment is the second of a two-article series on attachment. Read the first one here.
Attachment, the relationship between a child and caregiver that allows for optimal growth both physically and mentally, is a term frequently used by pediatricians, care providers and educators. New parents can be confused on just HOW they are supposed to create such an attachment. John Bowlby, MD (1907 -1990), the researcher who first used the term attachment, found ultimately the key piece for healthy attachment is time spent with a caregiver and the caregiver's responsiveness to the child's needs.
What is responsiveness? Responsiveness includes:
Learning baby's cues: Each baby has it's own unique ways to express joy, happiness, hunger, loneliness and sadness. In the beginning, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish one expression of sound or cue from another. Bowlby theorized that the attachment period really begins somewhere in the sixth month range, which gives a primary caregiver time to get to know just what a tone, gesture or cry really means.
Responding to baby's needs: An important piece of attachment is responding to a child's needs. Of course, feeding, diapering and holding a child is big piece of caring for needs, but so is knowing when a child feels overwhelmed, or has had enough stimulation, and adjusting accordingly with quiet time, relaxation or honoring a child's need for space.
Consistency in response: Caregivers construct a child's internal worldview. Consistently being fed when hungry, changed when dirty, allowed to sleep when tired, and held when upset or lonely develops a child's perception of the safety of the world. Given how limited an infant's perceptions are, consistent responses over time let a baby know that the world and caregiver is safe and it's that safety that helps build a secure attachment.
Sensory stimulation specifically from caregiver: Babies need sensory stimulation from their primary caregivers, like sound, touch, and clear eye contact - these are the building blocks that create trust. Diaper changing, meal times, and baths are all great opportunities to connect by singing, talking and gazing at a child. Sensory stimulation also includes play and humor!
Self-Care: New caregivers are frequently overwhelmed, short on sleep, uncertain of roles and role transitions, struggling with the work/parenting balance and so on. After all this, attachment can feel like one more 'thing' to add to the 'to do' list. This is why self-care is an incredibly vital component of creating a secure attachment! Finding a support system of friends, family or other new parents, engaging with therapists or other professionals when needed, taking care of your own physical health - good self-care allows for the mental and physical energy needed to respond to a child.
Bowlby discovered when responsiveness was present in the relationship, it predicted mutual enjoyment and satisfaction between a caregiver and child, leading to a deeper bond and secure attachment.
Bretherton, I. "The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth."
Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775.