What is attachment?

Attachment refers to the close emotional bonds of affection that develop between babies and their primary caregivers. In contrast to bonding, which is one-way, from mother to baby, and can be instantaneous, attachment refers to what happens in the child, and develops over a period of time. A newborn baby can be handed to anyone with no distress, but over the next few months, the baby begins to show a preference for, and seek out, specific people. This is the beginning of attachment. Depending on what happens between the mother and child in these crucial early months, children may become either securely or insecurely attached. If the mother is erratic, unpredictable, or unavailable, healthy attachment cannot occur. This is why it is so important to recognise and treat postnatal depression, a condition in which the mother cannot provide the emotional availability her child requires. Children will form attachments with various people over time, but the first and most important attachment relationship is almost always with the mother.

Healthy attachment occurs early or not at all

Attachment is a biological process, correlating with the early development of the brain. There are critical periods during which aspects of attachment should be occurring. The attachment experience is then “wired in” for life and the consequences are far-reaching. Therefore the notion that you can “catch up” with your child at the age of 5 or 6, when you are more financially secure, for example, is a fallacy. We need to prioritise our children and invest as much of ourselves into them as possible in these critical early months and years. It is worth remembering that this is a season of your child’s development, and if done properly, you will have established a “secure base” for your child from which he will be able to explore and negotiate the outside world, allowing you to refocus on your other priorities, whatever they might be.

Healthy attachment predicts better outcomes for your child

Through the process of attachment, a child develops what is referred to as an “internal working model”, which is his basic set of beliefs about himself, other people, and his world. By nursery school, the child will have internalised the concept that people are either ‘basically good and trustworthy’ or ‘basically bad and untrustworthy’. This internal working model then forms a foundation or template which the child draws upon to negotiate future relationships.

Follow-up studies have tracked the long-term consequences of early attachment patterns up to late adolescence, and have shown that securely attached children end up with better social skills, respond better to unfamiliar people, show more leadership qualities and have more close friends. They suffer less from anxiety than insecurely attached children. These qualities are closely linked to emotional intelligence, or “EQ”. Securely attached children also do better academically; they are more persistent with tasks and show more curiosity in situations.

Healthy attachment won’t happen by chance

Parents have to be intentional about their parenting, and have to make conscious choices about their priorities. The development of healthy attachment requires focused attention, which refers to specific interactive time, during which your attention as a parent is completely on your child. It involves eye contact, talking, singing and touch. It will usually centre around a specific activity, such as bath-time or bed-time or a game which your child might want to play. Many of these activities involve physical contact, which is a critical aspect of early attachment. It includes touching, hugging, tickling, kissing and, later on, rough- and- tumble (especially important for dads and boys).

It is important to allow your child to choose games and to allow for repetition of games (even though this may be boring for you!), as this is how children play and learn. Focused attention allows her to feel that she has you all to herself and that she is important enough for you to give her your undivided attention. If you are distracted by your cellphone, the TV, the newspaper or even the thoughts in your head, it gives her another kind of message.

Clearly it is impractical to be providing this kind of attention all the time, but the trick is to ‘carve out’ certain moments each day which are set aside for this purpose. Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline writes about “the tyranny of the urgent”. If we are not firmly rooted in our priorities, time with our children will always be sacrificed when something “urgent” crops up. What is “urgent” is not always what is important!

Healthy attachment cannot be outsourced

Research has shown that sustained maternal contact in the first 6-12 months of life predicts secure attachment. In one study, babies who received non-maternal care for more than 20 hours per week had an increased risk of developing insecure attachments. This does not mean that you shouldn’t be a working mom, but too many parents don’t consider the impact on their child of suddenly returning to work after 3 months maternity leave, when the process of attachment is just gathering momentum.

The daily routines of infant care provide the moments of focused attention alluded to earlier. If the home helper is responsible for dressing, bathing, feeding and putting your child to bed, then you are forfeiting opportunities to build healthy attachment with your child. As difficult as these daily routines can be, they provide the substrate for attachment. There is an increasing tendency to allow younger and younger children to watch TV, which is often used as a kind of babysitter. This interferes with important developmental tasks, including attachment.

Healthy attachment doesn’t require a PhD

Finally, please don’t despair! Being a new parent is fun if you just relax and enjoy your child, much of the above will happen spontaneously. One of the leading theorists in the field, Donald Winnicott, put it so well when he coined the term, “The Good Enough Mother,” meaning that you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be, well, good enough!