A relationship that builds

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.

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.

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 (top) and Maxim Morin (bottom)