The importance of attachment

At birth, your baby is fragile and entirely dependent on you. As you care for them, they gradually build a connection with you. This bond helps your child to feel safe and promotes their healthy development.


A relationship that builds

We often think that attachment and love are the same thing. But in reality, infants bond with their primary caregiver before developing feelings of love.

By Nathalie Vallerand

We often think that attachment and love are the same thing. But in reality, infants bond with their primary caregiver before developing feelings of love.

When your baby is hungry, you feed them. When they’re cold, you warm them up. Over time, your little one begins to understand that you’re responding to their emotional cues and ensuring their well-being. They start to trust you and seek your attention. This special bond is known as attachment.

“The attachment bond is formed when your baby expresses a need by, say, crying or wailing, and you respond to their cues,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux.

Attachment develops mainly during the first year of life and is said to reach its peak at 6 months. It continues to grow and solidify throughout childhood. Attachment is necessary for the healthy development of certain parts of the brain involved in emotional and social function.

At first, babies form a stronger attachment with the parent who spends the most time with them. They become the child’s primary attachment figure. An infant will also form an attachment relationship with their other parent as long as this person gives them comfort, care, and individual attention. “That’s why it’s so important for both parents to share caregiving responsibilities and have bonding time with their baby during parental leave,” says Geneviève Lafleur, psychoeducator at CHU Sainte-Justine.

How to foster attachment

To develop secure attachment, you need to respond to your baby’s cues quickly, predictably, appropriately, and consistently, especially in their first 3 months of life. Then, when your baby has internalized and understood that you’re providing the care they need, they’ll be able to wait short periods for your response.

At this age, infants can only communicate through coos, cries, and facial expressions. They’re incapable of throwing a tantrum because their brain is not sufficiently developed. If your baby cries to be held, it’s because they need comfort. When you hurry to soothe them—feed them, give them cuddles, or change their diaper—you’re teaching them to trust you. They feel reassured because they know that you’ll be there if they need you.

However, some babies need more reassurance than others. Chantal can testify to this. She adopted her daughter, Zahara Léonie, from Mali when she was 8 months old. For several weeks, the baby girl would wake up at night screaming. But since she was co-sleeping with her mother, she would quickly calm down and fall back to sleep. Once Zahara Léonie transitioned to her own room, Chantal slept at the foot of her bed. “When she’d wake up, I’d rub her back and talk to her softly, saying ‘Mommy’s here’ over and over,” says Chantal. “Sometimes it would take her an hour to stop crying, and if I left the room, she’d start all over again. I’d go right back in, because I wanted her to understand that she could count on me.”

You don’t need to be a perfect parent to develop a secure attachment bond. “It’s the batting average that counts,” says Lemieux. “You might make mistakes now and then or have days where you’re more impatient than usual. What matters is whether you’re appropriately responding to your child’s needs the majority of the time.”

Children who have a strong, secure attachment with their parents are more confident when exploring their environment and building relationships with others.

Of course, it’s not always easy to decode a baby’s cues. Are they hungry, hot, or sick to their stomach? It can take a few tries to figure out what they want. "Sometimes you won’t be able to console your baby, but at least you’ll be by their side,” says Lafleur.

As you get to know your little one, you’ll be able to interpret their signals and soothe them more easily.

The benefits of attachment

Between 4 and 12 months, babies show their first signs of attachment: they smile at their parent, make deliberate eye contact, and seek physical proximity (e.g., by reaching out or crawling toward them). They’re also afraid of strangers and people they don’t know well. By the time a child is between 12 and 18 months old, you can tell whether they’ve developed a strong attachment bond.

In general, securely attached children will explore their environment confidently while making sure that their parents are nearby,” says Dr. George Tarabulsy, a professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology and scientific director of the Centre de recherche universitaire sur les jeunes et les familles (CRUJeF), a research centre within the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale. “They’ll check that their parents are watching and show them their discoveries.” They’ll also look to their parents for help or reassurance if they’re distressed or hesitant. Take 3-year-old Mathilde: During story time at the library, she’ll often make eye contact with her parents when the reader asks a question. “When we smile back, she understands that she has our permission to raise her hand,” says her father, Daniel.

Children who are securely attached to their parents are more confident and better at regulating their emotions. “For instance, they can calm down more quickly on their own because they understand that they’re in a safe space,” says Lemieux. Zahara Léonie is a great example. Today, at 17 months old, she sleeps alone in her room. She still wakes up frequently at night, but now she simply turns on her musical toy and goes back to sleep. By being by her side night after night, Chantal proved that she would always be there for her daughter.

When a child knows that they’re safe and loved, they also feel good about themselves and enjoy being with other children and adults. As a result, they’re able to form healthy relationships. They also adapt more easily to stressful situations, like starting daycare. They may be sad when their parents leave, but only for a short while, because they know they’ll come back.

The benefits of attachment also become apparent later in life, when children start school. Research shows that securely attached children learn more easily. In short, a secure attachment promotes your child’s overall development!

Does daycare impact attachment?

Some parents worry that daycare will affect their relationship with their child. “When the child is securely attached to their parents and attends a quality daycare, there are generally no problems,” says Dr. Tarabulsy. Because your child trusts you and knows that you’ll always come to pick them up, they can grow close to their educators without it negatively impacting their special relationship with you. What’s more, most toddlers start daycare around age 1, which mean they’ve already had time to develop a strong bond with their parents.

Hugs and kisses feel great!

Warm and loving physical contact with your child helps them calm down when they’re upset and makes them feel loved.

Warm and loving physical contact with your child helps them calm down when they’re upset and makes them feel loved.

When 3-year-old Mathilde gets a boo-boo during playtime, she seeks out her parents for comfort. After a big kiss to make it better, she’s ready to get back to exploring. “She also likes lots of cuddle time in the evening, before going to bed,” says her mother, Sarah. “She’s very affectionate.”

“There’s more to attachment than physical contact, but it’s essential to the parent-child bond,” says Geneviève Lafleur, a psychoeducator at CHU Sainte-Justine. Touch is the first form of communication between an infant and their parents. When you hold your baby, rub their back, or give them a massage, it lets them know that they’re not alone and that you care about them. Skin-to-skin contact at birth also makes newborns feel safe and eases the transition from the womb to the outside world.

In fact, research shows that the more physical contact babies receive, the less they cry. Chantal knows this firsthand, having frequently used babywearing to calm her daughter. “Zahara Léonie used to cry all the time unless I was holding her. The baby carrier let me to soothe her while still having both hands free to do other things.”

Is there such a thing as spoiling your baby because you hold them too often or are overattentive? “Infants under the age of 18 months don’t throw tantrums and can’t be spoiled,” says Lafleur. “If they’re seeking attention, it’s because they need to be comforted.” You’re not spoiling your child just because you’re quick to respond to their needs. In fact, you’re teaching them that they can rely on you. You’re also helping them feel safe and showing they can trust you, which helps to establish a strong attachment bond.

Physical contact is a good way to comfort your child and show them you’re there for them.

Some children are less affectionate by nature. Others become less comfortable with hugs and kisses as they get older. It’s important to respect your child’s boundaries. If you’re planting kisses on your little one’s cheeks and they push you away, turn their head, or avert their gaze, they’re telling you they’ve had enough. The best thing to do is leave them be.

If your child doesn’t like cuddly displays of affection, you can express your love by stroking their hair, blowing them a kiss, saying “I love you,” or giving them a wink or smile. “You can also allow them to be the one to initiate physical contact by saying you’d love to give them a hug whenever they feel like it,” says Lafleur.

When attachment is harder to establish

Attachment is a natural process, but it can be disrupted by certain factors, such as if a child gets sick or if their parents have trouble caring for them.

Attachment is a natural process, but it can be disrupted by certain factors, such as if a child gets sick or if their parents have trouble caring for them.

Magalie, 4 months old, was born with birth defects that have already required three surgeries to treat. Her parents, Nathalie and Alexendre, and her big brother, 2-year-old Marc-Antoine, haven’t been able to bring her home yet. And they still don’t know when that special day will come.

Every day, Magalie’s parents take turns visiting her, and she recognizes them even though they’re wearing masks. When they come into the room, her eyes light up. She can say a lot with just a look. “I get the feeling she can see right through me,” says Alexendre. “She can also pick up on our emotions. When I tear up, I can see the sadness in her eyes.”

When the hospital staff prepare Magalie for a shot or another medical procedure, the monitors show her little heart beating faster. She knows what’s coming. “She’ll grab one of our fingers and squeeze tight, and she won’t take her eyes off us,” says Nathalie. “That’s what makes us think that she can tell us apart from the medical staff and knows we’re important to her.”

The couple know that Magalie’s hospitalization makes it harder to form an attachment bond. “Some days, she isn’t well enough for us to hold her,” says Nathalie. “She’s intubated. She’s in pain. How can we play our role as protective parents in that situation?”

Other obstacles

There are also circumstances where parents are simply incapable of meeting their baby’s needs, such as in cases involving depression or any other illness, bereavement, drug addiction, poverty, social isolation, domestic violence, or marital conflict. “When a parent is struggling, it’s very hard for them to properly care for their child and make them feel safe,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux.

In addition, parents may still be coping with issues that stem from their own upbringing. “If they were raised in a family where their needs were ignored, they might have a hard time interpreting their baby’s cues and meeting their needs,” explains George Tarabulsy, a professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology. This could result in neglect or abuse.

“Babies will form attachments with their parents or caregivers no matter how well they’re cared for,” says Karine Dubois-Comtois, a full professor in the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and clinical psychologist in child psychiatry at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.

“However, when a child isn’t sure they can count on their parents, they experience uncertainty and anxiety. When this happens, the child develops what we call insecure attachment.”

If you have concerns or are struggling with your mental health, confide in someone close to you or talk to a specialist.

There are several different types of attachment styles. Some children are always glued to their parents and are afraid to leave their side to explore their environment. They are very reactive to change and difficult to soothe. These children often have an unpredictable parent. Since they never know what to expect, they stay close in the hope of receiving attention.

Other children generally don’t let on when they’re distressed and rarely turn to their parent for comfort or assistance. This happens when a parent tends to be emotionally unavailable and to ignore their child’s needs. The child will begin to avoid asking for anything out of a fear of rejection. “Children who don’t have secure attachment bonds have trouble regulating their emotions,” says Dubois-Comtois. “They react strongly to change and may display aggressive behaviour. They also have lower self-esteem. All of these factors can make relationships with others harder later on in life.”

Can a damaged bond be repaired?

Fortunately, when circumstances improve, parents can begin building a stronger bond with their children. For example, a mother who has recovered from a period of depression can refocus her attention on caring for her baby. The younger the child, the easier it is for them to redevelop trust in their parent.

Conversely, the older the child, the harder it is to repair the bond. That’s why parents who are having trouble caring for their child should seek help from a relative, doctor, or CLSC as soon as possible. There are many help programs available for parents in this situation. Some regions even offer training to teach parents how to understand their child and meet their needs.

Potentially serious issues

Some children who have a particularly difficult start to life are unable to develop an attachment bond with any significant person. This is sometimes the case for children who were abandoned at birth or who have been severely neglected, abused, or repeatedly placed in foster care. Because they haven’t received the attention and care they need, they are at greater risk of developmental delays and behavioural problems. “These children present a huge challenge for the people who care for them,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux. “It takes a lot of energy, patience, and often child psychiatry services to improve the situation.” The damage caused by a lack of attachment can be very difficult to repair. In such cases, the child may be diagnosed with an attachment disorder by a psychiatrist. “It’s comparable to post-traumatic stress disorder, because emotional relationships become a veritable minefield for the child,” explains Lemieux. “It’s nearly impossible for them to trust or form a bond with anyone, even the most loving of foster parents.”

Actions that build attachment

Parent-child attachment stems from feelings of safety, trust, love, and affection. Here are some ways to strengthen this bond.

Parent-child attachment stems from feelings of safety, trust, love, and affection. Here are some ways to strengthen this bond.

Get to know your baby

Talking to your baby and making frequent eye contact are great ways to develop your attachment bond. One simple way to interact with your little one is to describe your actions. For instance, tell them what you’re doing as you prepare their bottle or change their diaper. When your baby smiles or coos, you can respond by smiling, speaking, or even singing to them.

Offer comfort

Responding quickly when your baby cries makes them feel safe. To reassure them, you can speak softly, sing a nursery rhyme, hold them in your arms, or rock them gently. You should also listen to your child when they’re angry, scared, or sad, and stay by their side until they feel better. This way, they’ll learn that they can count on you in tough moments.

Play together

Playing with your child, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, helps you build an attachment bond. If your little one is still a baby, you can show them different toys, describe their environment, tickle them, and speak to them. If you have a talking toddler, you could ask questions about their day, like what activities they did at daycare. When you have more than one child, it’s important to have one-on-one time with each of them so they feel important and loved.

Name your child’s emotions

If your child is frightened by a loud noise, you could say: “The loud noise scared you. Don’t worry, it’s only a truck. You’re safe.” Doing so will help your little one make connections that will eventually help them understand their external and internal worlds, leading to better emotional regulation.

Say goodbye before you leave

When you let your child know that you’re leaving instead of sneaking away, you help them understand that you’ll always come home. This reduces any feelings of abandonment your child may experience. Tell them you’re going out and explain who will be taking care of them.

Establish routines

When you establish routines and rules, like a bedtime routine (e.g., bath, story time, lights-out), you create stability. This helps your child know what to expect. Of course, your house rules should be clear and age-appropriate.

Things to keep in mind
  • Attachment is the emotional bond between a baby and their primary caregivers.
  • To develop secure attachment, you need to respond to your child’s cues quickly, predictably, appropriately, and consistently.
  • Feeling safe with their parents is critical for a child’s healthy development.
  • A securely attached child will have an easier time getting along with others and adapting to change.
Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, March 2016
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist, author, and training instructor
Updated: June 2023


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Photos (in order):, Maxim Morin, Sabeva, Alexendre Boislard, personal collection, Stankovic, Kim Goh