We track our babies’ progress against many milestones over their first year of life. But one of the most important milestones they can achieve during this time is least prominent for mothers and their health care providers – the development of a secure attachment bond. A secure attachment boils down to the infant’s trust in the primary caregiver. Can the caregiver be trusted to provide comfort and respond appropriately to infant needs?
While many milestones can be readily observed or assessed (such as smiling and crawling), a baby’s trust and security with their caregiver is not something typically measured outside of the research laboratory. However the relationship a child has with their primary caregiver profoundly affects every aspect of their social lives.
Bowlby’s widely influential attachment theory describes the way that babies’ relationships with their primary caregivers (usually, but not always, the mother) influences the way they come to view themselves, other people, and the world. This influence carries through to adulthood and is a result of internal working models.
Internal working models are the mental representations people have – what they expect of themselves and of others – within relationships. And these working models are rooted in that first infant-caregiver bond. When caregivers respond promptly and consistently to infant needs (such as cries of distress), babies learn to trust their caregivers. They feel secure in knowing that no matter what, this person will be there for them when they need it. A responsive caregiver teaches the infant that: 1) they are themselves worthy of respect and unconditional love, and 2) other people can be trusted to provide love, respect, and otherwise meet their emotional and physical needs.
This fundamental view of the self and others within relationships has implications across the lifespan. When people believe they deserve unconditional love and respect from a relationship partner (romantic or otherwise) they seek out partners who meet this expectation. And they are able to form secure and trusting relationships with others.
But while all babies are attached to their caregivers, not all babies have this secure, trusting bond. Trust can be undermined by caregiver insensitivity. Parenting methods including ‘cry it out’ sleep training can hurt the infant-caregiver bond. Babies who are left to cry don’t learn to ‘self-soothe’, they learn to stop signalling distress because the caregiver isn’t going to show up. Children learn not to rely on a parent who is unlikely to provide comfort.
Indeed, studies have shown that when mothers respond to night-time wakings consistently and sensitively (picking up and soothing the baby) their infants are more likely to be securely attached.
Day or night, responding to infant and child needs and cues consistently and sensitively is the key to developing a secure attachment bond. Your child will learn that they can trust you to comfort them when they need it, to help them when they are in distress, and to respect their feelings and their needs. They will then feel secure enough with themselves to form positive relationships with others.
Considering the central importance of the attachment bond, I would argue that attachment security should be routinely assessed by infant and maternal health care providers to allow for early intervention if necessary. Particularly as early behavioural intervention to improve parent sensitivity has shown to improve infant attachment security.