Give your baby a great start: Safeguard healthy attachmentWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Have you decided on your baby’s name yet? It’s just the start of many decisions you’ll need to make for your little one.
Some are minor decisions, like choosing between cloth or disposable diapers, and deciding whether to give your baby a soother or not. Other decisions are much more significant: When will you return to work? Who will care for your baby then? How will you prepare your child for that transition?
All these big decisions deserve careful consideration, because the choices can be confusing, and there’s a lot at stake. In fact, in the first year of your baby’s life, you’ll make some of the most important choices you will ever make for your child.
To ensure you’re making the very best choices for your infant, it’s important to understand how you, in the first 12 months you spend with your child, play a crucial role in laying the foundation for your child’s life-long emotional health.
So much depends on you
By God’s beautiful design, your baby is wired to seek a unique emotional connection with one very special person. As your baby’s primary caregiver, that’s you.
Right from birth, your baby is extremely sensitive to his or her relationship with you, and is learning about relationships from you. And incredibly, what your baby learns from you about relationships in his or her first year of life will profoundly shape your child’s emotional and social development for years to come.
The quality of your relationship with your infant actually guides the development of neural networks in your infant’s rapidly developing brain. So much so, that by the time your child is just 12 months old, your relationship will have substantially "built the mould" that will shape your child’s eventual sense of self-worth, and his or her expectations of all relationships.
For your child’s brain to develop in a healthy direction – giving your child the best odds for healthy self-esteem and fulfilling relationships in the future – your infant needs to feel a strong and positive emotional connection to you. Psychologists call this becoming "securely attached" to you. Ideally, this sense of connection should be well established by the time your baby is one year old.
Unfortunately for many babies though, this healthy emotional bond doesn’t always develop. In fact, child development researchers estimate that, by 12 months of age, one in three infants are not securely attached to a parent.
How to nurture secure attachment
This first year with your baby really matters, because it’s a crucial window of time for building, in your baby, that strong sense of attachment to you.
Most critically, in the here and now, your baby needs to be continually reassured that he or she is important to you and is safe in your care.
Even though you love your infant intensely, your love is not enough, on its own, to make your baby feel loved and secure. Your infant won’t feel loved unless you learn to express your love in ways that your baby can understand.
Child development experts have identified specific non-verbal cues that help your baby feel secure and well cared for, and that help him or her become securely attached to you. As often as you can, it’s very important that you:1
- respond promptly when your baby cries and provide whatever is needed – food, a clean diaper or relief from painful tummy gas (rather than leaving your little one to "cry it out")
- make frequent, lingering eye contact (rather than rushing through tending to your baby)
- remain relaxed and use gentle, unhurried touch (rather than conveying stress, anger or impatience)
- use a happy or soothing tone of voice
- show eagerness and joy in engaging with your baby
- patiently soothe your baby when he or she is hungry, uncomfortable or afraid, continuing to soothe until your baby calms down
- follow your baby’s cues – initiating play when they’re awake and responsive; letting them rest or sleep when they look away or seem agitated (both are signals that your baby is overwhelmed)
This kind of attentive, responsive care whenever your baby communicates a need conveys three messages to your baby that are fundamental to his or her healthy emotional development. Your baby learns that:
- you recognize his or her needs
- you will consistently respond to meet those needs
- they are safe in your care.
Why secure attachment is imperative
These are the types of long-lasting messages a still-very-young child will internalize when they enjoy a close, safe emotional connection with their parent – and when they do not.
Securely attached child
(the child has a healthy emotional connection to their parent)
- I matter to someone, therefore I have value / am lovable
- My needs matter; I can get my needs met
- I can trust others
- The world is a safe place
- Emotions can be strong, but I can calm down
- Relationships are safe and enjoyable
Insecurely attached child
- I'm not sure I'm valuable / lovable
- My needs don't matter to others
- I can't trust others; I have to take care of myself
- The world is unpredictable and scary
- Emotions are frightening and overwhelming
- Relationships are unsafe and unpredictable2
When you consider these two very different outlooks on life, it’s hardly surprising then that, as they progress through childhood, children who were securely attached to a parent or caregiver as an infant and have maintained that positive sense of attachment are much better at:
- building healthy self-esteem
- loving and trusting others
- feeling empathy for others
- staying focused on tasks
- managing stress
- accepting parental discipline
- reaching their academic potential
- building lasting and satisfying long-term relationships
- adhering to high standards in their morals and conduct.
Making choices to safeguard attachment
Caring for your baby will demand a lot from you at times, but your baby’s dependency on you is a precious gift. It’s the wonderful way God has arranged for you to be the one who gives your child their first and most lasting lessons about their intrinsic worth, and the joy of relationships.
The value you put on your relationship with your child will become a sense of being valued that your child will carry with them years into their future.
Regrettably though, many choices moms are offered in modern society – and the choices moms feel they must make – aren’t always in line with all we’ve learned about the importance of secure infant-to-parent attachment.
In a recent interview, Focus on the Family Canada counsellor Wendy Kittlitz shared her concerns that many moms are unintentionally making choices that create a sense of abandonment in their infant and that can, bit-by-bit, erode the crucial bond that binds their baby to them:
"There’s a perception out there – and I often see this reflected in comments on social media – that different moms do things differently with their babies, and that it’s all okay. But in truth, it’s not. Not all choices are as good as the next choice."
It’s best to let your baby’s needs set your agenda
Once specific area of concern that Kittlitz identified was scheduling infants.
"Parents hear from others, ‘If you come whenever your baby cries, they’ll expect that all the time.’ Well, yes," says Kittlitz, "that’s entirely the point. Parents should respond to their little one as much as they can, within reason. Infants are simply not wired to soothe themselves, and leaving them to cry can adversely affect their brain chemistry and their ability to manage stress in the future. It also sets a young child up to believe that they don’t need you, or anyone else – that they can handle everything themself."
Using behaviour modification to make your baby live life on your schedule will work, but it’s not good for your baby.
"Putting babies on a schedule – making them eat at certain times and sleep at certain times – is not something I would ever recommend," says Kittlitz. "A baby will eventually behaviourally adjust to an enforced schedule, but that’s because they have no choice. It’s not good for their wellbeing.
"In contrast, letting babies feed on demand, and sleep when they’re tired, establishes that their own rhythms and needs are significant. . . . Parents need to invest in supporting their little one’s developing sense that they matter."
Best choices for childcare
In their first year of life, your baby needs to learn healthy dependence on you. Starting around the age of two, your youngster will begin learning to become independent – and that’s a long process that ends somewhere around the age of 20. But that dependence on you in the first year is crucial.
"A mother – or someone a child recognizes as their primary caregiver – simply can’t overdo contact with a child in that first year," says Kittlitz. "You are the best caregiver to ensure your baby’s healthy emotional development, and you should try to maintain full-time care of your child for as long as possible. In Canada, parents can take a year off work to care for their infant and that’s something I would highly recommend – if parents possibly can – that they take advantage of that benefit."
Failing that, look for creative ways to try to maximize time with your young child, says Kittlitz. "Can you work from home? Can you work when your spouse is home?"
If you and your spouse really must return to work full time, the second best choice would be to have a responsible member of your extended family care for your child. The third-best choice would be to have your child cared for in another family home – with a small number of other children. "Institutional daycare would be my very last choice for a child," says Kittlitz.
For some new moms, that transition from a working life to being an at-home mom is a difficult one.
"I’ve heard moms say, ‘I just long for some adult conversation,’ " says Kittlitz. "Find ways to get some of that – your needs are important too. But remember that even though your baby does not talk back right away, making a practice of talking to your baby in soft, soothing tones as you go about your day will stimulate your baby’s brain and build connection between you. It may also help you feel less disconnected from the world you are used to."
Reading books out lout to your infant – even the adult book you’re reading – or reading Scripture aloud are also great ways to build attachment and boost healthy brain development in your baby.
"As much as you can, for as long as you can, try to relax and enjoy your time at home," says Kittlitz. "Revel in those days of just being with your baby, knowing that you are doing something really valuable as you spend that time with your child. It’s a huge investment that will pay off for years. Your child will have a better foundation for coping with life."
1. By all means, you should feel free to let someone else step in to care for your baby from time to time. Occasional breaks – especially if you feel pushed to the limits of your patience – are important for your well-being, and will not threaten the attachment bond between you and your child.
2. A rough start to your relationship with your child doesn’t mean your future together is in jeopardy. Attachment is very malleable; it's always possible to improve your relationship with your child to bring you both closer.
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