Understanding Attachment in Children

In the past twenty years, knowledge of the brain, how it works and it’s relationship to attachment in children has increased dramatically. It is very important for parents and other caregivers of infants and young children to understand how these two are linked.

When studies of attachment and attachment issues were first being researched, there was some confusion between this and bonding theory.

Bonding theory has more to do with mothers’ response to infants, than what is happening for the baby. The premise of this theory is that there are ‘critical periods’ which must be present between mothers and infants in order for them to ‘bond’.

The theory was actually a result of an attempt to make birth practices more humane after years of women giving birth under general anesthetic, babies being removed for hours or even days to a nursery, and neither parent having much access to their infant. It quickly became ‘fact’ that the first hours after birth were critical for moms and infants to bond….it was much like the idea of ‘imprinting’ that we see in animals. The thought was that if it didn’t happen immediately after birth, the critical period is bypassed, and it may never occur.

This bonding theory became confused with Bowlby’s attachment theory, which is a very different animal. Bowlby focused on how babies become attached to their mothers (or primary caregivers) in the weeks and months following birth.

While it is true that close physical contact immediately after birth reduces the chance that mothers who are at risk for rejecting or distancing themselves from their infant will do so, there is no evidence that this is true for the majority of mothers. Regarding attachment In children, it is certainly the ideal, for mothers and their infants to be together for the first few hours after birth, as there are critical ‘connections’ happening for both, but when this doesn’t happen, there is no research that supports that most mothers will not ‘bond’ with their infant over the days, weeks and months that follow.

Attachment theory is a process by which infants begin to make sense of who they are, how the world works and how they fit into it. The infant brain is firing up and the synapses are connecting, based on the early interactions they have with primary caregivers.

With regards to attachment in children, it is important to realize there is a cycle of interaction between infant and caregiver called the Arousal-Relaxation cycle. During this process, the infant is initially relaxed for a period of time (sleeping, looking around, etc). At some point the infant becomes aware that they are uncomfortable, begins to cry (their only means of communicating a need to us), and caregivers react to the cry by figuring out what the need is and responding appropriately- to both the physical need and/or the emotional need. The infant then returns to a relaxation state called homeostasis.

This cycle is repeated hundreds and hundreds of times during the first days, weeks and months of a child’s life, as caregivers respond to the infants’ many needs for food, connection and comfort. When the primary caregivers are nurturing, responsive and congruent (matching the baby’s emotional signals with their own), then the infant develops what is called secure attachment.

Pivotal brain connections and important decisions about self, others and the world are being formed. Securely attached infants and children are making ‘brain’ decisions…they are forming connections that result in them having a view of themselves as important, as having some power to affect change in their environment. They learn that their first caregivers are trustworthy, nurturing, and responsive to needs – which forms the blueprint for all future relationships. And finally, they understand the world as a predictable, consistent and safe place.