Attachment Theory

Apart from being in good health, there is probably nothing as important for your own and your baby’s attainment of happiness as the quality of the attachment that you are able to create. Whether you are an adult or a small child, how you feel about the world is defined largely by the depth and the character of the relations you are able to form with the people surrounding you.

It is therefore no wonder that this whole area of human existence, the ability to form good relations and secure attachment to others, has attracted interest in the world of human developmental science and research. One branch of this field of science, labeled “Attachment Theory , has devoted thousands of man-years into uncovering why it is that some people have secure attachments and relations and why others are consistently struggling in establishing good relations. Probably the most awe-inspiring finding for you as a mother is the pervasive and fundamental influence you and close family members will have on your baby. Much of the foundation will be established in the first year and will continue through your actions in the first few years.

Certainly, each child comes into the world with its own specific genetic endowment and temperament. Some children are more blessed in this regard than others, but even here the research indicates that these factors in the make-up of your child’s personality are in no way carved in stone. In fact they are quite malleable and are dependent on how you and other primary caretakers interact with them daily. Thus the first few years are a platform on which to establish your child’s life-long ability to form relations.

Luckily, the actions and responses that you and other caretakers perform in your daily interactions with your baby in order to bring about a secure attachment are what most women would describe as intuition. Attachment researchers specifically stress the need for adequate, timely and consistent responses to the baby’s needs.

As an example, if the baby is hungry, it should have adequate amounts of milk, at that very time when it signals it is hungry. It should not be offered a clean diaper instead. Failure to meet basic needs, by either offering e.g. too little milk or trying in frustration to force your baby to eat; or by delaying feeding significantly because life is imposing other more pressing demands on you, all these small failures, if done repeatedly, will bring about conditions of stress in your baby. These small failures will also color your baby’s perception of the world and whether the world generally will meet its needs and be safe.

Later, when your baby is older, it is biologically programmed to actively, by itself, seek non-verbal interactions with you. If you persistently ignore these invitations for playful interactions you will fundamentally color your baby’s expectations or “inner working model of its relations with others. These interactions are vital for the neurological wiring up of your baby’s brain.

Every mother wants the best for her child, but in spite of this, 35-45% of all children have insecure attachment. Why is this? There seems to be a range of factors in a mother’s life that will affect the mother-baby relationship. These important factors are: adequate rest and nutrition, positive or resolved birth experience, emotional support, practical assistance, small breaks from baby-caring, maternal self-efficacy or having come to terms with one’s own childhood, realistic expectations of self and baby, understanding of and ability to meet the baby’s specific temperament and a positive breastfeeding experience.

The more of these factors that are absent, the greater is the risk for an insecure attachment. One approach to caretaking that has so far received relatively little research attention is that of maintaining prolonged contact with one’s baby through carrying with the help of a baby carrying device. However, the little but rigorously designed and executed research demonstrates that carrying can help the mother to overcome many of the life stressors that, under normal circumstances, would bring about insecure attachment.

Scientific efforts in the last two decades have increased our understanding of the role of a range of hormones that mediate maternal attachment and affection. One of these hormones is oxytocin, which is released among others via breastfeeding and skin to skin contact. Oxytocin reduces the level of stress hormones in the human body and also induces maternal behavior in addition to a range of other beneficial effects.

To summarize, by carrying your baby, research indicates you will be increasing the level of anti-stress hormones in your own and your baby’s body. This gives you more peace to be mentally present for your child and is calming for your baby so it can devote its energy to the incredibly demanding range of developmental processes it has to go through in its first year.

In coming articles I will describe in greater detail how carrying may affect the attachment security of your baby and some of the underlying biological and neurological mechanisms that support the attachment process.

Henrik Norholt

Dr. Henrik Norholt is a member of The World Association of Infant Mental Health. He holds a Ph.D. from the LIFE faculty of Copenhagen University and is a resident of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been studying the effects of baby carrying as it relates to child psychological and motor development through naturalistic studies since 2001.

He is actively engaged in the study of current and past research into baby carrying through his large international network of family practitioners, midwives, obstetricians, pediatricians and child psychologists and shared his insights with the subscribers to Ergobaby’s blog.

September 1, 2010
September 1, 2010