Baby’s secure attachment and why is it so important for your baby’s brain?

It feels impossible to talk about secure attachment and not to include your baby’s brain in this story. All of us are born with billions of neurons that have yet to link up. When neurons join, they create a pathway, which scientists call synapses. This begins to take place in the last trimester and continues at a great pace for the first year of life and until your baby is about 15 months old. The types of experiences your baby has will go a very long way to determining the type of brain that they develop. Those neurons that are not used will die off and other pathways will be formed, particularly from familiar experiences. As a result, the brain your baby forms will be unique to them, based on the very specific sets of experiences that they have, predominantly with you as their main carer.

We thought before about the pathway to secure attachment and that your baby can reach this through their experience of you imagining what they may feel or need and match this with a helpful response. This might sound difficult and indeed if you have had little experience of this yourself, particularly growing up, this can feel really challenging. This is because the ability to think about what we feel is developed through others offering this to us. If we have had very little care of this kind, then we have had little chance to be able to notice and develop the ability to think about what we and others may feel, instead we are more likely to feel overwhelmed by emotions.

This is because when we are babies, we are unable to manage what we feel without help, babies do not understand what they are feeling. This means that babies need support not just with the more obvious distress of a loud cry, but also more subtle signs.  It is your tough job as your baby’s parent to help them to slowly recognise and cope with what they feel. This makes the first two years of life the most important time, as your baby is learning about feelings and what happens in interactions with other people. If as a baby you experienced being typically shouted at or ignored when you cried, you will have learnt not to cry and perhaps to try and push away what you feel. This means you will struggle to recognise and certainly to describe such feelings later in life. This is also why two people can react so differently to seemingly exactly the same experience. It is because of the expectations that we have formed based on our previous interactions. For example, if you have grown up hearing a lot of shouting and arguing, it is probable you will have learnt to be watchful and attentive to possible signs of danger, as that was how you felt you could try to stay safe as a child. As these experiences are mapped onto our brains, this is how you are likely to approach the world as an adult. Conversely, if you were often smiled at, then this is what you would have learnt to expect when someone approached you and this felt memory would be encoded into your brain, one you cannot specifically recall, like learning to walk, but also forms the expectations you have of others.  When your baby experiences consistent care from you, this is mapped onto their brain and becomes the basis for them being able to recognise and manage their emotional experiences as they get older. These types of experiences enable the brain to form connections between its different parts, increasing flexibility and laying the foundation for emotional awareness. The fewer these types of experiences, the less flexible and more rigid we may become. As a result, the one thing above all else that you can give to your baby which will support them for the rest of their life, is an environment where they feel safe, loved and cared for.

Importantly, although infancy is a crucial time for your baby’s developing brain, it does not stop there. By their very nature, our brains are adaptive, which means they continue to be impacted by our experiences throughout life, just not in quite a fast a way as very early on. If you find it hard to imagine your baby’s mind, hard to notice what they need or that when they cry it feels overwhelming, change is most definitely still possible. This is in many ways what the function of therapy is.

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