As this is my first newsletter it seemed fitting that I start at the beginning and talk about infant attachment. John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory is one that really resonates with me. Basically it says that in the first two to three years of life, children learn about themselves and other people based on how they have been treated by their primary caregivers.
He suggested that we lay down working models of attachment, which remain largely fixed throughout our lives. These working models tell us if we are good enough, lovable, valuable and interesting. They also tell us if other people can be counted on to be appropriately responsive, respectful, loving and kind. When our parents are all of these things most of the time, we feel good about ourselves and we feel safe. That is, we form a secure working model of attachment. When a new baby is born he is completely dependent on his parents to meet all of his needs. This is not to say that babies aren’t intelligent or able to communicate. Parents who take the time to watch their newborns will see that babies mimic our expressions, they respond to various stimuli in the environment and they show preferences to certain sounds, people and smells. They fuss and cry for a whole lot of reasons and sometimes for no apparent reason! They experience certain things as calming and settling and others as over-stimulating and upsetting. Babies need a whole lot of time and attention if parents are going to learn how to read their signals and respond appropriately to them. Babies need parents whose actions give them the message, “Hey you are fabulous and interesting and I can’t get enough of getting to know you! I’m going to figure out what you need and I’m going to do my best to take good care of you.”
I hope you really noticed the “to do my best” part, because nobody is perfect and nobody gets parenting right all the time. Truth be told, most of us make more mistakes than have shining parenting moments! The important thing is to pay attention and to do your best. If you make a mistake; if you misread the baby’s cues; if you get frustrated and angry; if you’re so tired you wish your baby would just disappear; if you feel like running away, you are having a normal reaction to a very demanding situation and you need to take a break, get some support and have a rest. You figure out what went wrong and you try to do better next time. Looking after your self is one of the best ways to help your baby develop a secure attachment. The better you feel, the better your interactions with baby are going to be. That’s all part of a secure attachment.
There have been many studies looking at the development of postpartum depression and the impact it has on babies. Many of them suggest that the better supported a new mother is as she makes the transition to motherhood, the less likely she is to suffer from PPD. Cultures that set aside the first month or two after childbirth as a time for the mother to rest and get to know her baby, while other people look after the household chores and older children, have significantly lower rates of postpartum depression. It has also been demonstrated that the more depression a new mother experiences the harder time she will have connecting with her baby. The less connected the mother is to her baby the harder it will be for the baby to form a secure attachment to her. The less secure the attachment the more likely that person is to develop depression later in life. It can become a vicious cycle!
Babies do best with healthy mothers. Healthy mothers need lots of love, support, encouragement and validation. They know what a big job motherhood is and that can be overwhelming and scary! They also need to give up ideas of perfection and control… babies are very good at pooping on those and at the worst possible moments!
So what does the development of a secure attachment look like? Imagine the scene of new parents gazing at the their baby. She coos and they coo back. She sticks her tongue out and they copy her. They talk to her and look at her and tell her about what is going on. When she is upset they try to comfort her. When she gives signals that she needs to rest or be quiet they find ways to soothe her. When she learns to do something new they are amazed and in awe of her. When they are busy doing other things they make sure she has interesting things to look at or listen to, they talk to her or they expose her to other people who love her and delight in her. They make her world safe and predictable. What the baby sees when she sees her parents is two people who love her to bits. She has the power to make their faces light up!
If you think back over your life and relationships and remember the times that you were able to make someone’s face light up I think you will understand just how wonderful that feels. It’s not hard to understand the positive impact that power has on a baby’s developing sense of self. To my mind that is the foundation of a secure attachment!
Individual, couple and family therapist