Fostering a Secure Attachment With Your Child
Kristin Tosi, MA
John Bowlby, the father of Attachment theory, describes attachment as a lasting psychological connectedness between two people. The primary attachment relationship between the parent and the infant develops from birth and has lasting impact of the child’s development and future relationships.
How does it develop?
Winnicott (1971) theorizes that the relationship between the mother and infant develops through the holding environment, meaning the infant develops a first understanding of him or herself depending how the parent looks at and holds him/her. Research has shown if the parent looks at the infant with love and tenderness and holds the infant with warmth, the infant is more likely to develop a secure attachment with the parent and will also positive sense of him or herself.
During the first few months of an infant’s life, the attachment bond between the parent and infant is developed through nonverbal cues. Parents intuitively imitate their infants and encourage their infants to imitate them by cooing, smiling, making utterances, and mimicking infant gestures. Often, the parent and infant repeat these interactive, playful exchanges to each other several times. These exchanges are the first methods of communication with the infant and let the infant know the parent is available to listen and ready respond to the infant’s needs. Feeding, holding, playing, and soothing the infant fosters security, safety, and trust. The infant then develops an understanding that the relationships are safe and learns that he or she can depend on their parent.
It can, however, be difficult to read an infant’s cues. Is the infant hungry? Tired? Cold? Colicky? Fortunately, the parent’s responses do not always need to be accurate. In fact, mismatched responses provide an opportunity for the infant to learn and develop effective strategies to get their needs met. The attachment relationship is fluid and bidirectional, meaning the infant will respond to the parent’s verbal and nonverbal cues, just as the parents respond to the infant’s cues. While meeting the needs of an infant can be tiring and stressful, it is important for the parent to remain calm when holding the infant. It can be helpful to take a break, go for a walk, or take a shower when the parent is feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.
Some experts insist that the mother breastfeed and co-sleep to foster a secure attachment, however, this is not necessarily true. Co-sleeping and breastfeeding are just two of the many ways parents can foster this close bond. Most importantly, it is critical that the parent responds to the infant sensitively and warmly and adjust their behavior and schedule to meet the needs of the infant. Making eye contact, using a soft tone of voice, mirroring the infant’s expressions, and holding the infant tenderly also foster this close connection. Bath time and feeding are simple occasions where the parent can share a gaze with their infant, smile, and talk about the things going on around them. Parents that are sensitive, consistent, flexible, and warm are best able to create a secure attachment with their own infant.
Further, the parent’s own state of mind and childhood memories can affect their relationship and ability to bond with their own infant. Parenting can be stressful and can trigger unhappy memories or anger from childhood. It is important for parents to seek help if they feel depressed, anxious, or angry about relationships or events in their own lives. Therapy, whether individual or family therapy, can help parents to improve their relationships with their own infants. Parenting groups can also help new parents feel less isolated and overwhelmed.
What does a secure attachment look like?
Ideally, the parent will provide a secure base for the infant or toddler to explore from and a safe haven for the infant or toddler to return to in times of distress. Toddlers, with a secure attachment pattern, feel safe exploring the surrounding environment and periodically touch base with the parent to renew confidence. The toddler may want to show the parent something or glance back to ensure their behavior is safe. Toddlers also return to the parent in times of distress and are soothed with gentle reassurance and support from the parent.
How does attachment affect children throughout their lifetime?
Early patterns of interacting with primary caregivers become internalized and later influence relationship patterns with others throughout life (Bowlby, 1973). For example, if an infant experiences a loving parent-child relationship, then the infant develops a sense of self that is worthy of love and support. Secure attachment at one year is correlated with better peer relations, higher school performance, enhanced capacity to regulate and understand others’ emotions, and less aggressive and anti-social behavior.
For more information on attachment patterns and assessing attachment:
For more information on attachment research:
More tips on parenting and attachment:
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss, Vol. 2: Separation. New York: Basic Books.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality, 1-156. London: Tavistock Publications.
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