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The First Relationship: Parent-infant Attachment is key to Child’s Development
“This is a dance back and forth. Every family works it out differently.”
A healthy baby bond begins Day One. Baby fusses and mom finds ways to comfort him. She coos, cuddles, caresses, kisses, calms. She brings warmth, care and security to this new relationship with this tiny human being. In scientific terms, she is building a protective mother-infant attachment that will have a profound effect on how this new being one day functions in the world.
Her baby feels wanted, worthy and safe from harm. He knows how to communicate with grimaces, smiles, sounds, gestures and body movements. This stable, nurturing parental relationship fires development of healthy circuitry in his budding brain. It affects his learning, his language skills, his social and emotional development.
But attachments do not always start out on this happy note. Parents may be neglectful, even abusive. Infants and toddlers are the largest single group of children entering foster care, says University of Washington researcher Susan Spieker, professor of family and child nursing and director of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development.
Even parents intent on doing “right” by baby can go wrong. Moms and dads worried about spoiling the child may ignore a baby’s wailing -- because spoiled children cry and expect to be catered to. That’s not the message a needy infant picks up, says Spieker. “It is impossible to spoil a little baby. Little babies do not know how to manipulate you, press your buttons, or do anything on purpose to annoy you.”
Parents may respond only intermittently to baby’s cries, unaware that this reinforces his behavior. “Babies of inconsistent parents will try harder, scream louder, and escalate things sooner,” says Spieker. “These babies go straight to what works, and they go right to the maximum level.”
Ignoring crying has linguistic as well as emotional consequences. “Infants whose cries are met with comfort eventually substitute crying with talking. Infants whose cries are ignored may experience language delays,” says Spieker, who has done extensive work with high-risk populations, including adolescent mothers and substance-abusing parents, through the UW center.
The nine-year-old center -- dedicated to promoting research, education, progressive policy and improved practice surrounding the first five years of a child’s life – trains infant mental health specialists from a variety of disciplines to go into the field and work one-on-one with families. They’re alert to such red flags as infant feeding problems, sleep problems and excessive crying. “It’s impossible to treat those symptoms in the baby alone,” says Spieker. “We address them by looking at what is going on in the parental relationship. All infant mental health happens in the context of those relationships.”
One technique the infant mental health specialists learn is to videotape mothers and babies during home visits and review the playback side-by-side with the parent. They comment on positive moments and wonder with the parent about other moments that may not be going so well. What was going on when the infant grimaced and gurgled? When he was reaching for mom? Did she know he wanted her – only her, no one else in the room? “We ask questions about what’s going on, so parents can come to their own conclusions,” says Spieker. “It’s not, ‘Here’s what you did wrong’ or ‘Here’s what you should do.’ It’s a vehicle for self-reflection.”
The goal is to reframe parents’ ideas about child-rearing. “We help parents reflect on a baby’s needs, cues, and symbols, to help them see that: ‘This baby is in distress. He’s a little helpless baby and he really needs me. And this is how he lets me know,’ ” says Spieker.
Decades of research into infant attachment consistently show that babies thrive mentally, socially and emotionally in direct relation to a parent’s responsiveness and sensitivity. Low levels of parental sensitivity -- in particular lack of comfort for infants in distress -- are linked to insecurity and aggression in school-age children. Long-range studies suggest those aggressive tendencies can impact social functioning, academic achievement, and relationships with teachers and friends.
The most widely used measure of mother-infant attachment quality is the Strange Situation, developed by Canadian developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. The test puts a mother and baby together in an experimental room, with toys. As the baby explores the room, a stranger enters and tries to interact with the child. The parent quietly leaves. The parent returns, the stranger slides out. After comforting baby, the parent leaves the child again, to be alone in the room. The stranger/reunion episode is repeated.
Researchers observe the balance of the children’s attachment and exploration behaviors to see how they manage issues of distress and comfort. Some less securely attached babies don’t actively seek comfort from mom; others seek it but it doesn’t work. The securely attached child seeks mom’s comfort, gets it, and then calmly returns to play. “These are the children who have mothers who were more consistently responsive and comforting early in life,” says Spieker.
The power of that secure attachment is shown in a longitudinal study she helped conduct for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, examining the effect of non-maternal childcare on children’s development. Spieker and colleagues found that the experience of childcare had little effect on parental attachment if a mother’s sensitivity and responsiveness were high.
But no parent should feel pressure to be 100 percent responsive and comforting all the time, says the researcher. Children are developing so rapidly that times of mis-attunement in the parental relationship are inevitable, and are actually opportunities for growth, says Spieker. “It is important to just keep wondering and puzzling about the meaning of the child’s behavior at a particular moment in time.”
Parenting is not a simple matter, especially when parents are bombarded with parenting fads and fashions and headline-grabbing “experts” who may or may not have scientific credibility. Moms and dads need to develop their own unique relationship with their newest family member, relying on intuition, not trends, says Spieker.
And it’s OK to make mistakes.
“This is a dance back and forth. Every family works it out differently,” she says.
“The key is to give babies a secure enough base that they can venture out, engage in the environment, experience the challenges, rise to those challenges, and then make developmental leaps.”
- Speak Up When You're Down
Support and referral for mothers with post-partum depression. 1-888-404-7763. http://www.ccf.wa.gov/ppd/home.htm
- World Association for Infant Mental Health
WAIMH studies effects of mental, emotional and social development during infancy on later normal and psychopathological development. http://www.waimh.org
- Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy
Center focuses on maternal and child health and early childhood issues. http://www.cpeip.fsu.edu/