Saturday, April 13, 2013

Attachment Parenting & Bonding

Attachment Parenting & Bonding

Understanding the Different Ways of Connecting With Your Child

Parenting: Attachment, Bonding, and Reactive Attachment Disorder
The main predictor of how well a child will do in school is the strength of the relationship they have as infants with their primary caretaker. This relationship also impacts a child's future mental, physical, social, and emotional health. It is not founded on quality of care or parental love, but rather on the strength of the nonverbal emotional connection between infant and parent known as the attachment bond.

Why is the attachment bond so important?

The groundbreaking 2000 study, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development identified how crucial the attachment bond is to a child’s development. It affects aspects of how a child will develop mentally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. While attachment occurs naturally as you, the parent or caretaker, care for your baby’s needs, the quality of the attachment bond varies. 
  • secure attachment bond ensures that your infant will feel safe and be calm enough to experience optimal development of their nervous system. Your infant's brain organizes itself and provides your baby with the best foundation for life: eagerness to learn, healthy self-awareness, trust, and empathy.
  • An insecure attachment bond fails to meet your infant’s need for safety, understanding, and calm, preventing the infant’s developing brain from organizing itself in the best ways. This can inhibit emotional, mental, and even physical development, leading to difficulties in learning and forming relationships in later life.
Ensuring that the attachment bond between you and your baby is a secure one, giving your child the best start in life, does not require being a perfect parent. In fact, the 2000 study found that the critical aspect of the child-primary caretaker relationship is NOT based on quality of care, educational input, or even the bond of love that develops between parent and infant. Rather, it is based on the strength of the nonverbal emotional exchange that occurs between an infant and the adult who spends the most time taking care of him or her.

Your baby needs more than love

As a parent or primary caretaker for your infant, you can follow all the traditional parenting guidelines, provide doting, around-the-clock care for your baby, and yet still not achieve a secure attachment bond. You can tend to your baby’s every physical need, keep them safe and dry, provide the highest quality nourishment, and ensure they get all the sleep and mental stimulation they need. You can hold them, cuddle them, massage them, or even sleep with your infant without creating the kind of attachment that fosters the best development for your child.
How is it possible to do such a good job of meeting a baby’s physical needs and yet have a child that does not have a secure attachment and may suffer developmentally?

The bond of love differs from the attachment bond

All infants need to be cared for. To physically survive, they need to be fed, bathed, and put to sleep. The infant's need for survival and the parent’s need to care for their offspring create a bond of love between parent and child. Since the 1960s, many books, articles, and online sources have encouraged parents to bond with their babies by investing more time and energy in taking care of their infant. However, an infant needs something more than love and caregiving in order for their brain and nervous system to develop in the best way possible.
As the infant brain at birth is largely undeveloped, it requires a calm, secure environment in order to organize itself and develop in the best possible way. For this to happen, the baby needs to be able to engage in a nonverbal emotional exchange with their primary caretaker in a way that communicates their needs and makes them feel comfortable, understood, and safe. An infant who feels disconnected emotionally from their primary caregiver is apt to feel unsafe, confused, and insecure at a crucial time when their brain is developing.
The Difference Between Bonding and a Secure Attachment Bond
Bonding . . .Secure Attachment Bond . . .
Refers to your feelings for and sense of connection to your child that begins before birth and usually develops very quickly in the first weeks after the baby is born.
Refers to your child’s emotional connection with  you (his or her primary caregiver) that begins at birth, develops rapidly in the next two years and continues developing throughout life.
Is task-oriented. You plan and attend to your baby’s regular needs such as changing diapers, feeding, and bathing.
Requires you to focus on what is happening in the moment between you and your baby. Your infant’s cues tell you that he or she feels unhappy, for example, and you respond.
You maintain your regular adult pace while attending to your infant. For example, you hurry to change the baby’s diapers so it will be done in time for you to make an important phone call.  
You follow your infant’s slower pace and take the time to decipher and respond to your baby’s nonverbal cues that communicate, for example, “I'm in no hurry, I just want to explore you and me.”
You as the parent initiate interaction with your baby. For example, you want to get a cute photo of your baby laughing so you initiate play time.
Your infant initiates and ends the interaction between you. You pick up on your baby’s nonverbal cue that he or she is exhausted and needs to rest, so you postpone taking a cute photo and stop trying to engage the baby in play.
You focus on future goals by, for example, trying to do everything you can to have the smartest, happiest baby.
You focus solely on the moment-to-moment experience, just enjoying connecting with your baby.
You concentrate on planning, reading about, and talking about what your baby needs.
You concentrate on the emotional interchange that occurs between you and your baby. 
Is a process that can include many people—all those who spend time caring for your infant.
Happens with only one person at a time—namely, the primary caretaker, the person who spends the most time taking care of the baby.

Why there is so much confusion about bonding and the secure attachment bond?

The words bond or bonding are commonly used to describe both caretaking and the emotional exchange that forms the attachment process, even though they are very different ways of connecting with your baby.  
  • One is a connection based on the care a parent provides for an infant, while the other is based on the quality of nonverbal emotional communication that occurs between parent and child.
  • Both types of parent-child interaction can occur simultaneously. While feeding or bathing your baby, for example, you can also build the emotional connection by recognizing and responding to your baby’s nonverbal cues.
  • Before experts understood the radical changes going on in the infant brain during the first months and years of life, both the caretaking process and the attachment process looked very similar. Now, though, they are able to recognize and painstakingly record an infant’s nonverbal responses to highlight the process of attachment.

Obstacles to creating a secure attachment bond

Some parents can deeply love their babies, yet be ill-equipped to meet the needs of an infant’s immature nervous system. Since infants cannot calm and soothe themselves, they rely on a parent or guardian to do so for them. A baby will constantly look to the parent as a source of safety and connection and, ultimately, secure attachment. If, however, the parent is frequently depressed, anxious, angry, grieving, pre-occupied, or otherwise unable to be calm and present for the baby, the infant’s physical, emotional, and/or intellectual development may suffer.
The new field of infant mental health, with its emphasis on brain research and the developmental role of parents, provides a clearer understanding of factors that may compromise the secure attachment bond. If either the primary caretaker or the infant has a health problem, nonverbal communication between the two may be affected, which in turn can affect the secure attachment bond.

How an infant’s health can affect the secure attachment bond

Experience shapes the brain and this is especially true for newborns whose nervous systems are largely undeveloped.
  • When a baby experiences difficulty in the womb or in the birth process—during a cesarean birth, for example—his or her nervous system may be compromised.
  • Adopted babies or those who spend time in hospital neonatal units away from a parent may have early life experiences that leave them feeling stressed, confused, and unsafe.
  • Infants who never seem to stop crying—whose eyes are always tightly closed, fists clenched, and bodies rigid—may have difficulty experiencing the soothing cues of even a highly attuned caretaker.
Fortunately, as the infant brain is so undeveloped and influenced by experience, a child can overcome any difficulties at birth. It may take a few months, but if the primary caretaker remains calm, focused, understanding, and persistent, a baby will eventually relax enough for the secure attachment process to occur.

How a caretaker’s health can affect the secure attachment bond

The feelings you experience as a primary caretaker can shape the developmental process rapidly occurring in your infant’s brain.
If you are overly stressed, depressed, traumatized, or unavailable for whatever reason, you may not have the awareness or sensitivity to provide the positive emotional mirroring an infant needs for secure attachment.
Sometimes even a healthy, caring, and responsible caretaker may have trouble understanding and initiating a secure attachment bond with their infant. If, as an infant, you didn't experience a secure attachment bond with your own primary caregiver, you may be unaware of what secure attachment looks or feels like. But adults can change for the better, too. Just as you can strengthen yourself with exercise and a healthy diet, you can also learn to manage overwhelming stress and deal with emotions that may interfere with your ability to create a secure attachment bond.

Repair of the secure attachment bond is always possible

You don't have to be a perfect parent to build a secure attachment bond with your infant—no one is able to be fully present and attentive to an infant 24 hours a day. Because the brain is capable of changing, repair is always possible and may even strengthen the secure attachment bond.
If you notice there’s a disconnect between you, when you’ve missed or misinterpreted your infant’s cues, and attempt to repair it by continuing to figure out what your baby needs, the secure attachment process will stay on track. The effort involved in repair can even deepen trust, increase resiliency, and build a stronger relationship.

Distractions of daily life

Cell phones, computers, TV, and countless other distractions of daily life can prevent you from paying full attention to your baby. Responding to an urgent email during feeding, texting a friend during play time, or just zoning out in front of the TV with baby are all ways parents miss out on opportunities to make eye contact with their infant and engage in the secure attachment process. Without eye contact and your full attention you’ll miss your infant’s nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal communication tips for secure attachment

Nonverbal cues are sensory signals communicated by a certain tone of voice, a particular touch, a special scent, or the sight of a particular face. An infant’s primary caretaker brings all of these unique qualities together creating a sense of recognition, safety, and comfort for an infant. Even when a child is old enough to talk, nonverbal communication remains key to building and maintaining a secure attachment.
Nonverbal Cues and How They Can be Used to Create a Secure Attachment Bond
Eye contact - You look at baby adoringly and he or she picks up on the positive emotion conveyed by this nonverbal signal and feels safe, relaxed, and happy. Your eyes lock and you have a mutual “falling-in-love” experience that brings joy to both of you and creates a lasting foundation for future positive experiences. If you’re depressed, stressed, or distracted you may not look directly into baby's eyes at all, and eventually baby will stop making eye contact.
Facial expression - If the face baby looks into is calm and attentive, baby will feel secure. But if your face looks distressed, angry, worried, sad, fearful, or distracted baby will pick up on these negative emotions and feel stressed, unsafe, and unsure.
Tone of voice - Obviously, an infant doesn’t understand the words that you use, but he or she can understand the difference between a tone that is harsh, indifferent, or preoccupied and a tone that conveys tenderness, interest, concern, and understanding.
Movements - The way you lift, wash, carry, and set down your baby conveys your emotional state to the child—whether you’re attentive, calm, tender, relaxed, or disinterested, upset, and unavailable. Some babies enjoy more vigorous movement while others prefer to be moved more gently and less often. Follow your baby’s cues.
Touch - Some infants prefer a firmer touch while others prefer a lighter, softer touch. By being attentive, you can recognize your infant's preference and make him or her feel secure and understood.
Pacing, timing, and intensity - The pacing, timing, and intensity of sounds, movements, and facial expressions you use with your infant can reflect your state of mind. If you maintain an adult pace, or are stressed or otherwise inattentive, your nonverbal actions will do little to calm, soothe, or reassure your infant. You need to be aware of your infant’s preferences for pacing and intensity, which are often slower and less forceful than your own.

Creating a secure attachment bond

As there are many reasons why a loving, conscientious parent may not be successful at creating a secure attachment bond, Helpguide has created three unique resources to help the process.

Understanding what the attachment bond looks like

Informed by leaders in the new field of infant mental health, the Helpguide video, Creating Secure Infant Attachment, demonstrates what a secure attachment bond looks like from the perspective of the infant as well as the parent.
Additionally, the video examines the obstacles that explain why a loving parent may not be able to create a secure attachment bond or why an infant may not be able to participate in the two-way emotional exchange that creates this bond. The video also describes how parents can reach out for help when it becomes necessary.

Focus on your own feelings to create a secure attachment bond

Since secure attachment can only occur when you are calm and focused, Help guide offers a free training course that teaches you the skills to harness stress and manage unruly emotions.
The toolkit is designed to help if you:
  • are depressed, anxious, traumatized, or overwhelmed by stress.
  • did not experience a secure attachment bond as a child.

Learn how to build a strong attachment relationship

Attachment Milestones and Your BabySecure attachment is an ongoing partnership between you and your baby, but it doesn't mean you have to be the perfect parent. Building a Secure Attachment Bond With Your Baby can help you understand your baby's cries, interpret his or her signals, and respond to your baby's needs for food, rest, love, and comfort.

Related Articles

Attachment Milestones and Your Baby
Building a Secure Attachment Bond With Your Baby – Tips for new parents on how to create a secure attachment bond with your newborn.
Creating Secure Attachment
(video) Creating Secure Attachment – A special video for parents on how to help your child get the best possible start in life.
Attachment Milestones and Your Baby
Attachment Milestones and Your Baby – Learn about developmental milestones related to secure attachment.
When Baby Won't Stop Crying
When Baby Won't Stop Crying – Discover time-tested strategies for comforting and soothing an upset or colicky baby.
Separation Anxiety in Children
Separation Anxiety in Children – Learn how to make the separation process easier and identify and deal with separation anxiety disorder.
Attachment & Reactive Attachment Disorders
Attachment & Reactive Attachment Disorders – Explore the warning signs of attachment disorders and learn what you can do to help a child overcome attachment problems.
Postpartum depression
Postpartum Depression – Learn the signs and symptoms of postpartum and how new moms can get help and support.
Understanding Depression
Understanding Depression – Understanding depression—including its signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment—is the first step to overcoming the problem.
Quick Stress Relief
Quick Stress Relief – Identify your own stress responses and learn how to quickly and effectively reduce stress in the middle of any challenging situation.
Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief – By practicing techniques that activate your body’s relaxation response you can effectively combat stress and ease tension.
Anxiety Attacks and Anxiety Disorder – Anxiety treatments and self-help strategies can quickly help you reduce your anxiety symptoms and control anxiety attacks.

Free Toolkit Program

Bring Your Life Into Balance
Bonding and secure attachment are rooted in the safety of an environment shaped by parents who have the skills to remain both calm and focused much of the time. Not all loving parents have these skills, but they can be learned. Helpguide’s Bring Your Life Into Balance Toolkit teaches parents the skills they need to create secure attachment with their infants and children

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