The importance of attachment

At birth, your baby is a fragile little thing who depends entirely on you. Through the care you give her, she slowly becomes attached to you. This emotional relationship that forms between you allows your child to feel safe and to develop fully.


A relationship that builds

We often think that attachment and love are the same. But before she loves you, your child develops an attachment to you.

By Nathalie Vallerand

We often think that attachment and love are the same. But before she loves you, your child develops an attachment to you.

If your baby’s hungry, you feed her. If she’s cold, you make her warm. Slowly, she begins to understand that the care you give her makes the unpleasant feelings go away. She realizes that you’re the source of this well-being and begins to trust you and seek your presence. This bond is what we call attachment.

“The attachment bond develops during difficult moments, when a baby lets her parent know that something is not right through tears and cries. It occurs when she needs something and those needs are met,” explains social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux.

This attachment mostly develops during the first year of life, but it is reinforced throughout childhood. It is needed for the proper development of the parts of the brain related to a child’s emotional and social abilities.

In the beginning, a baby feels a stronger attachment towards the parent who takes care of her the most and who spends the most time with her. This parent therefore becomes her primary attachment figure. A young child also becomes attached to the other parent, so long as they give her attention and comfort. This is why during a maternity leave, it’s important for the father to also participate in caring for the baby in order to nurture this attachment bond, believes Geneviève Lafleur, educational psychologist at CHU Sainte-Justine.

How to foster attachment

For attachment to develop, your baby’s needs must be met in a quick, predictable, appropriate and nurturing manner. At the start of life, your baby’s tears, cries and facial expressions are the only ways she can communicate with you. Before 18 months old, a child is incapable of throwing a tantrum because the brain is not sufficiently developed to react that way. If an infant cries to be held, it’s because she needs to be reassured. By going to her quickly to comfort her, by feeding her, cuddling her or changing her diaper, you teach her to trust you. She feels reassured since she knows that she will get help when she calls for you.

But some babies need more reassurance than others, as Chantal knows. She adopted a baby from Mali, Zahara Léonie, at 8 months old. For several weeks, the infant would wake up at night screaming. But since mother and child were co-sleeping, Zahara Léonie would fall back asleep just because she would feel her mom against her. When the little girl was moved to her own room, Chantal would sleep at the foot of her bed. “When she’d wake up, I’d rub her back and speak to her softly, saying, ‘mommy’s here,’” says the adoptive mother. “Sometimes it would take her an hour to stop crying, and if I left the room, she’d just start up again, even louder. I’d go right back to her because I wanted her to understand that she could count on me.”

However, creating a solid attachment bond doesn’t mean you have to be the perfect parent. “It’s your batting average that counts,” says social worker Johanne Lemieux. “There are days when you make mistakes or lose your patience, but what matters is that you adequately meet your child’s needs most of the time.”

Children who have a strong bond with their parents are more confident in exploring their environments and creating relationships with others.

It’s not always easy to figure out your baby’s cues, especially at the beginning. Is she hungry? Hot? Does she have a tummy ache? Sometimes, understanding what your baby wants will be a question of trial and error. “And there will be those times when you just won’t be able to console her, when all you can do is stay by her side,” says educational psychologist Geneviève Lafleur. As you get to know your infant, you’ll learn to better understand her needs, and it’ll get easier to comfort her.

The benefits of attachment

Infants display their first signs of attachment between 4 and 12 months old : they smile, look intently at their primary caregivers, try to stay close to them (reach out or crawl to them) and are more fearful of strangers or people they don’t know well. But it’s between the ages of 12 and 18 months that you can really tell whether or not a toddler has developed a solid attachment bond.

Generally speaking, children who have developed a solid bond will explore their environments with more confidence, even while they’re making sure their parents are close by,” says George Tarabulsy, professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology. “They check to make sure their parents are looking at them to show them what they’ve discovered.” They’ll also turn to their parents when they run into trouble or aren’t sure of themselves. Take 3-year-old Mathilde, for example. During story time at the library, she often looks at her parents when the storyteller asks a question. “We smile at her and she understands then that it’s okay and she raises her hand,” says Daniel, her dad.

When children have a solid attachment to their parents, they develop a healthy dose of self-confidence and are better able to control their emotions. “For example, they are able to calm down more easily when they’re alone, because they know they’re safe,” says Johanne Lemieux. Like Zahara Léonie, who now sleeps alone in her room. The toddler, now 17 months, still wakes up frequently at night, but she just cranks her musical toy by herself and falls back asleep. Night after night, through her constant presence, her mother proved that she would always be there for her.

When children feel loved and safe, they also develop better self-esteem, as well as more positive reactions to other children and adults. This helps them have good relationships with others. They also adapt more easily to stressful situations, such as starting daycare. They may be a little sad when their parents leave, but this feeling generally doesn’t last long because they know their parents will come back for them.

The benefits of attachment can also be seen later on in school. Research shows that children who are solidly attached to their parents have an easier time learning. A solid attachment bond fosters your child’s full development.

Daycare : what impact does it have on attachment?
Some parents worry about the impact daycare will have on their relationship with their child. “When the attachment bond between parent and child is strong and the daycare is a quality daycare, there usually isn’t a problem,” says George Tarabulsy, professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology. If your child trusts you and knows that you will always come back for her, she can bond with her educator without it having a negative impact on the special relationship she has with you. Besides, since most toddlers start daycare around age one, they’ve already had the time to develop a solid attachment bond with their parents. However, if the daycare is not of good quality, and the child does not receive a quick, nurturing and appropriate response to her needs, she may develop attachment difficulties.

Hugs and kisses feel great!

Warm and affectionate physical contact with your child can help calm her when she’s agitated and make her feel always loved.

Warm and affectionate physical contact with your child can help calm her when she’s agitated and make her feel always loved.

When 3-year-old Mathilde hurts herself while playing, she seeks comfort from her parents. A kiss to make it better and off she goes again on a new adventure. “At night before bed, she gets her fill of hugs too,” adds her mom, Sarah. “She’s very cuddly.”

“Attachment is not built on physical contact alone, but it’s an important ingredient in the parent-child bond,” says Geneviève Lafleur, educational psychologist at CHU Sainte-Justine. Touch is the first means of communication between a newborn and her parents. By taking your baby in your arms, rubbing her back or gently massaging her, you show her that she’s not alone and that she’s important to you. Skin-to-skin contact at birth also makes the newborn feel safe and facilitates the transition from mom’s tummy to the outside world.

Research shows that the more we touch our babies, the less they cry. Chantal can relate, since she often used a baby carrier with her daughter. “At first, Zahara Léonie needed to be stuck to me or she would cry. I could reassure her with the baby carrier, while leaving my hands free to do other things.”

Physical contact is a good way to comfort your baby and show her that you love her.

Is there a risk of spoiling a baby if you always have her with you or if you run to her at the slightest cry? “Before 18 months old, a child can’t throw a tantrum and you can’t spoil her,” says Geneviève Lafleur. “If she asks to be comforted, it’s because that’s what she needs.” You don’t spoil your child when you respond quickly to her needs. Rather, you are showing her that she can count on you. You are also helping her to feel secure and trust you, which creates a solid attachment bond between you.

Some children are more cuddly by nature. Others become less comfortable with hugs and kisses as they grow. It’s important to respect your child’s limits. If you smother your toddler with kisses and she pushes you away, turns her head or stops looking at you, it’s because she’s had enough. When that happens, it’s best not to insist.

If she doesn’t like hugs and kisses, you can show her your love by running your hand through her hair, patting her on the back, blowing her a kiss, winking at her, saying “I love you,” or smiling at her. “You can also let her take the initiative by telling her that you’d love to give her a big hug when she feels like one,” suggests Geneviève Lafleur.

When attachment is harder to establish

Even though attachment is a natural process, some situations make it more complicated to develop, such as when an infant is sick or when parents cannot take care of their baby.

Even though attachment is a natural process, some situations make it more complicated to develop, such as when an infant is sick or when parents cannot take care of their baby.

4-month-old Magalie was born with birth defects that have already required 3 medical procedures. Her parents, Nathalie and Alexendre, and her older brother, 2-year-old Marc-Antoine, haven’t been able to bring her home yet. And they don’t yet know when that special day will come.

Every day, Magalie’s parents take turns going to see her. She recognizes them even though they wear masks. When they arrive, her eyes brighten. Just about everything happens with a look. “I get the feeling she can see right through me,” says Alexendre. “She also senses our emotions. If my eyes get all teary, I see sadness in hers.”

When the hospital staff prepare Magalie for a shot or any other medical intervention, the monitors show her little heart beating faster. She knows what’s coming. “She squeezes our finger tightly and keeps her eyes on us. It’s what makes us believe she knows we’re not medical staff and that we’re important to her,” says Nathalie.

The couple knows that this situation complicates attachment development. “Some days, her health allows us to take her in our arms. She’s intubated and she’s in pain,” says her mom. “How can we play our role of protective parents in these conditions?”

Other obstacles

There are also situations where parents just can’t be there to adequately meet their baby’s needs, such as depression or another illness in a parent, grief, substance addiction, poverty, social isolation, conjugal violence or marital conflict. “When a parent isn’t well, it’s very hard for them to properly take care of their child and to do what it takes for their baby to feel safe,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux.

Sometimes parents have issues from their own childhoods. “If the parents were raised in a family where their needs were ignored, they risk having a hard time understanding their own baby’s cues and meeting his needs,” explains George Tarabulsy, professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology. They may therefore neglect or mistreat their baby.

“Babies will attach to their parents or their primary caregiver, regardless of the quality of care provided,” says Karine Dubois-Comtois, professor with the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and psychologist in child psychiatry at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur hospital. “However, when a child isn’t sure whether he can count on his parents or not, he lives with insecurity and anxiety and develops what is known as insecure attachment.”

You can share your concerns with those close to you or someone in the field.

Attachment can be seen in various forms. Some children always stick to their parent and are afraid to move too far from them to go and explore their environments. They cry a lot and are difficult to calm. These children often have a parent who is unpredictable. Because they never know what to expect, they stay close in the hope of getting some attention.

Other children, on the contrary, express little distress and rarely turn to their parents when they run into trouble. This happens when the parent is seldom emotionally available for the child and tends to ignore his requests. The child will prefer to ask nothing rather than risk rejection. “Toddlers who don’t have a solid attachment bond have a hard time controlling their emotions,” says Karine Dubois-Comtois. “They react more strongly to changes and are likely to demonstrate more aggressive behaviour. They also have lower self-esteem. All this can make relationships with others harder later on in life.”

Can things change?

Fortunately, when the context improves, a more solid attachment can develop between parent and child. This could happen, for instance, when a mother recovers from depression and is better able to care for her baby. The younger the child, the easier it is for him to redevelop trust in the adult.

On the other hand, the older the child, the harder the bond is to repair. This is why parents who are having a hard time caring for their child should quickly ask for help from someone close, a doctor or the CLSC. There are various help programs available. Some regions even offer training to teach parents how to better understand their infant and meet his needs.

Some problems are serious
Some children who have a really bad start in life are unable to develop an attachment bond with any significant person. This sometimes happens to children who are abandoned at birth, seriously neglected, mistreated or even repeatedly placed in foster care. Since they receive neither the attention nor the care they need, they’re more at risk for delayed development or behavioural disorders. “These children present a huge challenge for the people who care for them,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux. “You need a lot of energy and patience, and you must often rely on child psychiatry services to improve the situation.” This lack of attachment may be very difficult to repair. This is what we refer to as “attachment disorder,” which is a diagnosis made by a psychiatrist. “This disorder can be compared to post traumatic stress disorder, as emotional relationships become a veritable minefield for the child,” says Johanne Lemieux. “The child is pretty much incapable of attaching himself to or trusting anyone, even the most loving of foster parents.”

Actions that build attachment

Parent-child attachment is a combination of security, trust, love and affection. Here are some tips on how to strengthen this bond.

Parent-child attachment is a combination of security, trust, love and affection. Here are some tips on how to strengthen this bond.

Develop a relationship with your baby
You bond with your baby when you look into his eyes frequently and talk to him, for example, by explaining what you’re doing when you care for him. You can answer his smiles and sounds by smiling back at him, talking to him and singing to him.

Comfort your child
When you quickly respond to your baby’s tears, you reassure him. It’s also important to pay attention when he’s angry, scared or sad, and to stay by him until he feels better. He will understand then that he can count on you in times of trouble.

Play with your child
When you take the time to play with your child, even if for only a few minutes each day, you build an attachment bond. It’s also good to show interest in what your toddler is doing. You could, for example, ask him about what he did at daycare. When you have more than one child and you spend time alone with each one, they will both feel important and loved.

Name his emotions
When you say to your child, “You were afraid because of that big noise. It’s only a truck. There’s no danger,” you help him make connections that will allow him to control his stress and emotions later on.

Let him know you’re leaving
When you let your child know that you need to go instead of sneaking out without him knowing, you help him to understand that you always come back, even if you leave. You can explain to him that you’re leaving and let him know who’ll be taking care of him.

Set up routines
When you set up routines and rules, you give your child stability. This helps him know what to expect. Of course, rules must be clear and age-appropriate.

  • Attachment is an emotional relationship that connects a baby to his caregivers.
  • The attachment bond develops as parents respond to their baby’s needs in a quick, predictable, appropriate and nurturing manner.
  • Children need to feel safe to develop fully.
  • Toddlers who have developed a strong attachment to their parents have an easier time getting along with others and adapting to change.


Naître et grandir

Source : Magazine Naître et grandir, March 2016
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Ellen Sheiner-Moss, professor with the Department of Psychology at UQAM and Director of the Centre for Study of Attachment and the Family


Photos : iStock.com/Halfpoint, Maxim Morin, iStock.com/Nadia Sabeva, Alexendre Boislard, personal collection, iStock.com/Milos Stankovic , iStock.com/Li Kim Goh