What is a secure attachment and why is it so important for your baby’s future?

A secure attachment is possibly the single greatest determinant of your child’s future wellbeing. This is because research has shown that it is predictive of so many later outcomes. This includes how well your child is able to regulate their own emotions, their verbal ability, capacity to get on well with others, academic achievements and it is a powerful protective factor against mental ill health. This article will explain what a secure attachment is and how you can help your baby to form such a relationship with you.

A secure attachment is, in essence, when your child feels that you will help them when they need you to. This can be everything from feeling hungry, tired or unwell, to upset, frightened, lonely or unsafe. Your baby’s type of attachment behaviour will be triggered when they feel in some way under threat or needing help with what they feel, be that physically or emotionally. Of course, for babies in the first few months of life, they will not have learned yet how to discern the difference between an emotion and a physical sensation.

The type of attachment that your baby will form with you is primarily determined by how you react to your baby when they are distressed, irrespective of the cause. If you are able to respond to your baby’s upset in a, consistently enough, caring way, then your baby will learn that it is safe for them to express what they feel and to ask you for help. This will lead your baby to want to be near you when they feel, for example unsafe or unhappy.

So, what is ‘consistently enough?’ We know from research that the parents and babies who demonstrated the highest degree of attunment, by which I mean, that the parent is able to correctly recognise and respond appropriately to their baby’s cues, occurs first time, approximately 30% of the time. Yes, that’s right, 30%, far lower I imagine than you may have been thinking.  When these parents did not notice the first time, then about a third of the time they were able to respond helpfully for their baby in the next moment and repair took place in the next interaction between parent and baby for the remainder. What does this look like in a day-to-day interaction? Your baby may make a sound to try to draw your attention, but you are distracted by something else, maybe you are washing up, looking at your phone, or simply lost in thought, so you do not hear. Your baby feels a little sad. This is the first misalignment. Your baby then tries again, maybe slightly louder, a little more insistently. You respond by going too close to your little one and talking in an excited way. Your baby looks away from you and places their hands in their mouth to soothe themselves. This is the second mismatch. You then talk to your baby in a calm soothing way, your baby turns towards you and you make eye contact, baby’s hand coming out of their mouth and you smile softly at one another. The interaction has now been repaired. This example shows how your baby can feel impacted by the times that you may miss their cues and also how much opportunity there is to make it okay. This is crucial, as it is very important that there are missteps between you. It is not necessary and actually really unhelpful for you to get it right every time with your baby. If you try to do this, you will end up being overly watchful and vigilant and that makes it hard for your little one to express ordinary difficult emotions. The mismatches allow opportunities for your baby to feel harder emotions, which is probably why the most attuned parents and babies only get it right first time on less than a third of occasions. What you are helping your child to learn is that relationships are made up of moments of misalignments and then making it better. This allows your baby to be able to learn how to repair ruptures in interactions, to manage how they feel and have a sense of being able to have an impact on what is happening to them and with other people.

To learn how secure attachment impacts your baby’s developing brain, please read Baby’s secure attachment and why it is so important for your baby’s brain.

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