Parenting Matters: What's All This Talk about Early Attachment?


Here are the top 3 frequently asked questions about how to build meaningful attachment relationships

Connection is created, navigated, ruptured, and repaired daily from the moment we are born. At the heart of being alive lies the vitality of being connected to others- feeling that what we do matters. What’s more is that we rely on being deeply understood by those around us in order to thrive. But how do we learn about healthy connection? What does it look like to build strong ties with others? Where do we learn about relating with people and the world more broadly? If connecting is so central to happiness, why does it seem so challenging to create deep bonds that last? These are among the myriad questions that I hear in my practice as a clinician working with pregnant women, new mothers, couples, and men. Intuitively we all have some sense that what happens during childhood impacts who we are, but making sense of why we are who we are can be a challenging, confusing, and daunting process. Arming ourselves with the basic tools to gracefully negotiate emotional intimacy may be a lifelong journey. I’ve gathered some meaningful questions that may shed light on the ingredients that comprise a healthy recipe for relating. Here are the top 3 frequently asked questions about how to help inform meaningful attachment relationships from birth onward.

Q: What is attachment?

A: Attachment is the process as well as the quality of the relationship that an infant forms with her caregivers. Initial experiences in relationship with primary caregivers lay the groundwork for subsequent relationships-- how the developing child will come to view connection, how she experiences her self, and the world around her. Attachment can occur with biological and adoptive mothers, fathers, stepparents, grandparents, and any other consistent person in the child’s life. Embedded in repeated experiences of predictable care, the infant learns about trust and security. Growing up in an environment infused with safety and intentionality ensures healthy social and emotional development. “Children with a history of secure attachment show substantially greater self-esteem, emotional health and ego resilience, positive affect, initiative, social competence, and concentration in play than do their insecure peers” (Wallin, 2007).

Q: What are some concrete ways to set the stage for my child to experience a secure attachment?

A: Research has found that it is the quality of the infant-caregiver interaction rather than the quantity of care that establishes the health in the attachment bond. In other words, the caregiver’s sensitivity to the infant’s gestures when they are interacting is of paramount importance. Number of hours spent together is not necessarily equated with security of attachment. For example, if a mother is home with her child full-time and feeling depressed, notably overwhelmed, and appreciably disconnected from her infant, the distressing quality of their interactions may deleteriously impact the child’s sense of comfort and security. Having a sense of what helps you feel the most present with your child will benefit the emotional health of the family.

The caregiver-infant patterns of communication hold great potential in establishing a secure attachment. Consistent maternal attunement facilitates the infant’s ability to freely explore the world around her, engage in spontaneous play, and rely on the caregiver to provide loving responses. Repeated instances of feeling cared for results in a child’s establishment of behavioral expectations—she learns to expect that people can provide safety and continuity.

Security is further felt when the caregiver illustrates thoughtful actions and mindful behaviors. These include: narrating for your child the events of the day as you move from one activity to the next, prolonged gazing and smiling, cuddling and comforting, skin to skin gentle touch, as well as calmly and consistently tolerating the variety of affective states your baby exhibits as she begins to take in the world around her.

Babies often feel distressed and unequipped to modulate their changing feelings. Infants depend on the attachment figure to help them manage and tolerate their affective experiences. This requires the caregiver to “bear within herself, to process, and to re-present to the baby in a tolerable form what was previously the baby’s intolerable emotional experience” (Wallin, 2007). During the initials months of life, the baby learns that her caregiver is able to gracefully navigate challenging moments with love and understanding. Caregiver consistency, responsiveness, and sensitivity yields infant flexibility, resilience, and a sense of attachment security.

Babies need their caregivers to be present not perfect. Newborns thrive when surrounded by dedicated caregivers who are consciously attuned to their burgeoning developmental milestones and their nascent vulnerabilities. Attachment and bonding are crucial, elemental aspects of this newfound relationship that set the framework for how babies come to understand trust, intimacy, and the world around them. Again, perfection is not the aim and striving for it is an unwarranted distraction from deepening this wondrous relationship. Instead, turning one’s energies toward being authentic and available to whatever arises during the transition into parenthood is likely the most beneficial dynamic for mommy and baby.

Attachment is a process not a finite event.

Q: How do the earliest moments between infant and caregiver impact future relationships?

A: Healthy development and attachment security flourish when resonant, attuned, loving, and consistent parental behaviors mark the initial months of a baby’s life. Babies bask in a comforting balance between connection and exploration as a direct result of environmental safety and trustworthy role modeling. Sensing that the world is a safe place reinforces self-confidence, trust in others, and a feeling that love and growth are generative. Conversely, when infants experience their caregiver as threatening or regrettably unstable, fear of closeness can prevail. Our internal compass for establishing and navigating relationships is initially arranged through seminal infant-caregiver interactions. Simply put, when early life feels melodic and predictable, the world and others in it feel approachable. The template for how we come to understand what it means to be in relationship with others is set up during infancy. These formative relational patterns persist as we journey into adulthood.

Dr. Zucker is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles specializing in women’s health with a focus on transitions in motherhood, perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child attachment and bonding.

Earning a Master’s degree at New York University in Public Health with a focus on international reproductive issues led to working for the Harvard School of Public Health. After years of international public health work, Dr. Zucker pursued a Master’s degree in Psychology and Human Development at Harvard University with the aim of shifting her work from a global perspective to a more interpersonal focus. Dr. Zucker’s research and writing about various aspects of female identity development and women’s health came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book (Routledge). For more information: www.drjessicazucker.com

Article contributed by This Emotional Life & Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. Follow Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. on twitter.


This article was originally published at PBS This Emotional Life . Reprinted with permission from the author.