Building a secure attachment bond depends on the quality of the nonverbal communication that takes place between your newborn and you, their primary caretaker. By understanding and responding to your baby’s cues — their movements, gestures, and sounds — you enable your infant to feel secure enough to develop fully and impact how they will interact, communicate, and form relationships throughout their life. But building secure attachment doesn’t mean that you have to be a perfect parent. By understanding how you can better participate in the attachment process, you can ensure that your child develops a secure attachment and has the best possible foundation for life.
the attachment process is interactive and dynamic. Both you and your baby participate in an exchange of nonverbal emotional cues that make your baby feel understood and safe. Even in the first days of life, your baby picks up on your emotional cues—your tone of voice, your gestures, and your emotions—and sends you signals by crying, cooing, mimicking facial expressions, and eventually smiling, laughing, pointing, and even yelling, too. In return, you watch and listen to your baby’s cries and sounds, and respond to their cues, at the same time as you tend to their need for food, warmth, and affection. Secure attachment grows out of the success of this nonverbal communication process between you and your baby.
Why is secure attachment so important?
A secure attachment bond teaches your baby to trust you, to communicate their feelings to you, and eventually to trust others as well. As you and your baby connect with one another, your baby learns how to have a healthy sense of self and how to be in a loving, empathetic relationship.
Secure attachment causes the parts of your baby’s brain responsible for the social and emotional development, communication, and relationships to grow and develop in the best way possible. This relationship becomes the foundation of your child’s ability to connect with others in a healthy way. Qualities that you may take for granted in adult relationships—like empathy, understanding, love, and the ability to be responsive to others—are first learned in infancy.
When babies develop a secure attachment bond, they are better able to:
- Develop fulfilling intimate relationships
- Maintain emotional balance
- Feel confident and good about themselves
- Enjoy being with others
- Rebound from disappointment and loss
- Share their feelings and seek support
- A secure attachment bond is good for you, too
Nature has programmed mothers as well as their infants to have a “falling in love” experience through secure attachment. The joy you experience as you connect with your infant goes a long way to relieve fatigue from lack of sleep and the stress of learning how to care for your baby. The bonding process releases endorphins into your body that motivate you, give you energy, and make you feel happy. Creating a secure attachment to your infant may take a little effort, but the rewards are huge for both of you.
Parenting tips for creating a secure attachment
Secure attachment doesn’t happen overnight. It is an ongoing partnership between you and your baby. As time goes on, it will become easier to understand the cries, interpret the signals, and respond to your baby’s needs for food, rest, love, and comfort—try to be patient with yourself and your baby as you learn about each other.
Secure attachment starts with taking care of yourself
Babies communicate most effectively when they are in a quiet and alert state, and so do you. As hard as it may be, it is important to take care of yourself in order to build a secure attachment bond with your infant.
- Try to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make you cranky, listless, and irritable. Some parents have found it helpful to trade night duty (on for two nights, off for two nights), or to have at least one morning a week to sleep late.
- Ask for support around the house. Especially in the newborn stages, get as much help as you can from your spouse, family, or friends.
- Schedule some time away. Caring for a young infant is demanding, and taking some time away can help you parent more effectively. An hour in a coffee shop, a walk, a yoga class, or doing something you want to do can provide some perspective and renewed energy.
Tip 1: Finding ways to calm yourself in stressful times
Since babies can’t communicate verbally, they are especially attuned to signs of anxiety or stress. Babies need outside help to calm down. But an anxious caregiver can actually add to the baby’s stress, making them harder to soothe. When you are feeling stressed, try to find ways to calm down before you interact with your baby.
- Take a deep breath. This may mean letting your baby cry a minute longer so that you can take a deep breath before picking your baby up and trying to soothe them.
Tip 2: Eating, sleeping, and opportunities for secure attachment
Many of your baby’s early signs and signals are about the need for food and proper rest. Increasing the frequency of feedings or adding in some extra time for rest where appropriate can make a big difference in your baby’s ability to engage and interact when awake.
Without proper rest, a baby cannot be calm and alert and ready to engage with you. Babies sleep a lot (often 16-18 hours a day in the first few months), and their sleep signals will come more often than you might expect. Often, babies who are overtired can act hyper-alert and move frenetically. You might mistake this energy for an invitation to engage, but really, it is your baby’s way of saying that naptime should have been 30 minutes ago.
Hunger will also be the cause of many early cues from your baby. Schedules are helpful, but growth spurts and developmental changes may cause your baby’s needs to change every few weeks so it is helpful to pay close attention to their unique signs and signals.
Tip 3: Talk, laugh, and play with your infant
The importance of having fun, playing with, holding, and sharing happiness with your baby cannot be overstated. Smiles, laughter, touch, and interaction are as important to a baby’s development as food or sleep. Your body language, the tone of voice, and loving touch are all important ways of communicating with your baby.
When you see signs that your baby wants to play, try to relax and then enjoy exchanging smiles, funny faces, and happy coos with your baby. Toys, books, and music can provide a helpful starting point for play, but often all it takes is a game of peek-a-boo or a silly voice to invite your baby to interact. Infants with an undeveloped nervous system can become exhausted very quickly, so watch for signs that your infant needs to withdraw from play because they have become overstimulated. If you feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to play with your baby, keep trying. Any discomfort or embarrassment should go away when you experience the joys of interacting with your child.
Tip 4: Secure attachment doesn’t require you to be the “perfect” parent
You don’t have to be a perfect parent all of the time in order to bond with your baby. Just do your best, and don’t worry if you don’t always know what your baby wants. What makes attachment secure, rather than insecure, is the quality and responsiveness of the interaction with your baby and a willingness to notice and repair a missed signal.
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