Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

This is a guest post by Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.

Part One: Fortifying Parenthood: Infant Attachment

Part One is about managing expectations about infant attachment and how to foster the infant bond

Infant attachment: Easier than we think

Parents are often burdened by internalized expectations surrounding attachment. Cultural pressures seep into our pores, clogging our hearts and minds with a million different ideas of how we “should” raise our children.

Super Mommy messages drain the life force out of genuine connection and intuitive responsiveness. Cultural pressures egg women on to embody unattainable perfection from head to toe, leaving us feeling compass-less and insecure when we need to trust ourselves most.

Laying the groundwork for healthy attachment relationships with our children may be easier than we think.

If we strip away the external frills, media hype, and ever-present “shoulds” of baby-dom we can plunge into the basic elements that make up healthy connection and fruitful development.

Let’s focus our energies on the burgeoning relationship with our children rather than culturally-bound trends handed down from generation to generation. We find presence of mind is the most powerful conduits for connection with our children.

What follows are some enriching tidbits about attachment and simple steps you can take with the aim of laying a foundation of emotional health in the relationship with your child.

Q: What is attachment

Attachment is the process, as well as the quality, of the relationship an infant forms with caregivers. Attachment can occur with biological and adoptive mothers, fathers, stepparents, grandparents, and any other consistent person in the child’s life.

A baby’s initial relationship experiences with primary caregivers creates the infrastructure for subsequent relationships, How the child views connection, how she experiences her self, and the world around her, is influenced by her early relationships.

With repeated experiences of predictable care, the infant learns about trust and security. Growing up in an environment infused with safety and intentionality ensures healthy social and emotional development.

“Children with a history of secure attachment show substantially greater self-esteem, emotional health and ego resilience, positive affect, initiative, social competence, and concentration in play than do their insecure peers” (Wallin, 2007).

Q: What are some concrete ways to set the stage for my child(ren) to experience a secure attachment?

Research shows it is the quality of the infant-caregiver interaction rather than the quantity of care that establishes the health in the attachment bond.

In other words, the caregiver’s sensitivity to the infant’s gestures and expressions during interactions is of paramount importance.

Repeated instances of feeling cared for results in a child’s establishment of behavioral expectations for future interactions, inside and outside of the home. Optimally, she learns to expect that people can provide safety, spontaneity, and continuity.

Research shows the number of hours spent together is not necessarily equated with security of attachment. For example, if a mother is home with her child full-time feeling depressed, notably overwhelmed, and appreciably disconnected from her infant, the distressing quality of their interactions may deleteriously impact the child’s sense of poise and/or interpersonal security. Thus, having a nuanced sense of what makes you feel the most present with your child will benefit the emotional health of your family.

The caregiver-infant patterns of communication hold great potential in establishing a secure attachment. Consistent maternal attunement facilitates the infant’s ability to freely explore the world around her, engage in spontaneous play, and rely on the caregiver to provide loving responses.

Security is further felt when the caregiver illustrates thoughtful actions and mindful behaviors.

Positive behaviors to reinforce secure attachment include:

  • narrating for your child the events of the day as you move from one activity to the next,
  • prolonged gazing and smiling, cuddling and comforting, skin to skin gentle touch,
  • calmly and consistently tolerating the variety of emotional states your baby exhibits as she begins to take in the world around her.

Babies often feel distressed and unequipped to modulate their changing feelings. Infants depend on the attachment figure to help them manage and tolerate their emotional experiences. This requires caregivers to “bear within herself, to process, and to re-present to the baby in a tolerable form what was previously the baby’s intolerable emotional experience” (Wallin, 2007).

Ideally, during the initial months of your baby’s life, she learns that caregivers are able to gracefully navigate challenging moments with love and understanding.

Caregiver consistency, responsiveness, and sensitivity yields infant flexibility, resilience, and a sense of attachment security.

Q: How do the earliest moments between infant and caregiver impact future relationships?

Healthy development and attachment security flourish when resonant, competent, attuned, loving, and consistent parental behaviors mark the initial months of a baby’s life.

Babies bask in a comforting balance between connection and exploration as a direct result of environmental safety and trustworthy role modeling.

Sensing that the world is a safe place reinforces self-confidence, trust in others, and a feeling that love and growth are generative.

Conversely, when infants experience their caregiver as threatening or regrettably unstable, fear of closeness can prevail.

Our internal compass for establishing and navigating relationships is initially arranged through seminal infant-caregiver interactions.

Simply put, when early life feels melodic and predictable, the world and others in it feel approachable. The template for how we come to understand what it means to be in relationship with others is set up during infancy and into toddlerhood. These formative relational patterns persist as we journey into adolescents and adulthood.

Book References:

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Books.

Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The whole-brain child. New York: Random House.

Perinatal and Postpartum Mood Disorders: Perspectives and Treatment Guide for the Health Care Practitioner (2008). S. D. Stone and A. E. Menkin (Eds).

 New York: Springer Publications.

Wallin,D. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Wiegartz, P. (2009). The pregnancy and postpartum anxiety workbook. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.

Web Reference:

Early Moments Matter: PBS Toolkit


Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health with a focus on transitions in motherhood, perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, and parent-child attachment. Jessica studied at Harvard University and New York University. She is an award-winning writer and a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS This Emotional Life. Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge). Jessica consults on numerous projects pertaining to the motherhood continuum. Visit Dr. Zucker’s website at www.drjessicazucker.com

Twitter: @DrZucker


Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 8, 2012 07:00 AM by Sharon Muza, BS, LCCE, FACCE, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA), CLE
Thank you Jessica, for sharing this information about attachment! Lamaze's 6th Healthy Care Practice "Keep Mother and Baby Together..." supports the information in your by advocating that mother and baby connect on the outside right from the start. I look forward to reading the second part of your article on Thursday!

Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 8, 2012 07:00 AM by Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D.
Dr. Zucker, I think that the word "attachment" has gotten a bit of baggage over the past few years. Some parents hear "attachment" and get anxious, or overwhelmed. You did a nice job of cutting through the noise and focusing on some clear and attainable behaviors that parents can choose to foster healthy attachment. Thanks for stating this so clearly. Warmly, Ann

Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 10, 2012 07:00 AM by Joni Nichols
Here's a link that a woman who birthed with me a few years ago shared with me this week that talks about "attachment" in simple, concrete and very do-able ways. Enjoy! http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/the-top-10-things-children-really-want-their-parents-to-do-with-them.html

Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 11, 2012 07:00 AM by JoAnn Jordan
Beautiful job sharing sharing what behaviors support attachment.

Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 11, 2012 07:00 AM by Kathy Morelli
@Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D. Hi Ann - yes that word "attachment" has gotten way too much baggage over the recent years and media doesnt help parents out much in this area (for example, witness that inflammatory Time cover?). Research shows that healthy biological attachment naturally occurs in a broad range of normal parenting practices. In fact, attachment happens naturally under any circumstances, it may not be secure attachment, but other categories of attachment.

Celebrating Mother's Day: Part One: Infant Attachment

May 15, 2012 07:00 AM by Carolyn Stone
Thanks very much for a simple explanation of attachment and the behaviors that help support it. I especially like the part about modeling and imparting emotion tolerance and modulation. Very useful. Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

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