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The Informed Parent

Bonding And Attachment In Infancy and Early Childhood

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jul. 07, 2003
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Most babies like to be held and cuddled. Most mothers and primary caregivers enjoy nurturing their babies. The acts of holding and cuddling are necessary for bonding.

Bonding, or the intimate relationship formed between an infant and her mother or primary caregiver, appears to develop naturally. But it requires that both the physical and the emotional needs of a baby be met.

Babies born with certain abnormalities may resist the nurturing a caregiver offers. Parents who are addicted to drugs or have other serious emotional problems may not be able to meet the emotional needs of their infants. The bonding necessary for forming healthy attachments does not occur.

Recent research has shown that babies and young children who do not bond and form early attachments are at high risk for aggressive and violent behaviors later in life. They may experience delays in their intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development.

The optimal time for bonding is the first few months after a baby’s birth. The window of opportunity narrows quickly. By the time a neglected child is one year old, the emotional damage from neglect is well established. By the time the child is three, the risk for delays in social, emotional, and intellectual development is high.

Learning to nurture your baby and young child in order for positive bonding and attachment to develop cannot be too strongly emphasized. Few high schools or colleges offer classes in effective parenting. Nonetheless, as a society, we expect that everyone who has a baby knows how to care for her. This is not so. Many new parents must learn the skills of caring for the needs of their baby. They have to understand the consequences when care is not provided.

Humans are hard-wired to be social beings. We are an interdependent species. We can only survive as individuals or as a society through relationships. Learning and using the following skills will provide the greatest opportunity for optimal development in babies and young children.

Provide Nurturing

It was once believed that picking up a crying baby would spoil her. This is no longer considered either valid or wise care giving. Babies need to be cuddled, rocked, sung to, and crooned with whether they are crying or not. When a baby is held closely, she can feel your heartbeat. This soothes her and is reminiscent of time in the womb. Having eye contact with a baby, smiling at her, and talking in a soft and gentle voice provides nurturance.

A baby bonds to one person at a time. The mother, father or primary caregiver is the first person the baby attaches to and bonds with. Being in this person’s presence provides a feeling of safety and security. The baby feels distress when that person is absent. Soothing, comforting, and providing pleasure are primary elements of the relationship. A consistent primary caregiver is necessary for optimal development.

Providing Structure

As the infant grows into babyhood and toddler age, she needs structure in order to feel secure. She needs to know that she will be fed at regular intervals and that her hunger needs will be satisfied. She needs to know that when her diaper is wet or soiled she will be kept clean and dry. This adds to her comfort. She needs to know that her caregivers will always be available to take care of her needs.

Daily rituals are part of the structure that adds security to a child’s life. Bathing and having a story before bed, playing with a child each afternoon, and having a talking time each day are simple rituals that both nurture and provide security.

Provide Consistency

Like nurturing and structure, consistency provides security for a baby and young child. Children need to rest securely in the knowledge that their needs will be continuously met by those who care for them. Toddlers and young children need to know that you mean what you say. They need to know that you will follow through on your word. When we aim for 100% consistency, we hit about 75% or 80%. This record is high enough to build a trusting relationship. This trust is a cornerstone of bonding and attachment.

Be Patient

Parenting and care giving is hard work. The results are not always what you might expect or hope for. Learning the ABCs of parenting allows you to do your best. Not chastising yourself when you make a mistake assists you in maintaining a positive relationship with your baby and young child. Consistency in the positive relationship leads to healthy emotional growth.

Seek Support

All parents and caregivers need support. Share any concerns with your pediatrician or physician. This medical person will allay your fears by telling you that all is well or by indicating changes that need to be made. Read well-recommended parenting books and attend parenting programs. They can give you valuable skills. Parent programs are a place where others like you can share ideas and concerns. Join with other parents and caregivers at the preschool your toddler attends, at your church, or at other community organizations. Conversing with others who have children the ages of your children can be both informative and fun. While many new parents know how to nurture and care for their babies and young children, just as many do not. Most, however, want to be effective parents. Only through learning the parenting skills necessary for a baby’s optimal growth can children have the opportunity to reach their potential.




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