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The developmental task of babies is to connect with other humans. In order for babies to have brain bandwidth sufficient to learn to do the things children can do, they must be unworried about their connection with Mom and Dad. A secure attachment to parents is essential to children’s mental health and also to their intellectual and social development later on.

So a new, large scale review of studies involving 14,000 American children is disturbing. It found that fully 40% of babies lack this secure attachment. As over 140 studies in the past have demonstrated, children at age three who did not develop secure attachment in infancy are more likely to be aggressive, defiant and hyperactive. Worse, these behavior patterns continue. Attachment or lack of attachment is lifelong.

Secure attachment is formed in the first year of life, usually by 10 months of age. It grows out of a baby’s understanding that her parents have her best interests at heart. Parents demonstrate this by being attentive and supportive to the baby, by picking her up when she cries, holding her and reassuring her. Parents whose children develop secure attachment are consistently child-centered. These babies know they can count on their parents. They are never worried that the “witch-mother” or the “danger-dad” will show up instead.

Researcher Sophie Moullin puts it this way: “When parents tune in to and respond to their children’s needs and are a dependable source of comfort, those children learn how to manage their own feeling and behaviors. These secure attachments to their mothers and fathers provide these children with a base from which they can thrive.”

Most children – 60% – do develop secure attachment. They get what they need from their parents early in life.  But nearly half – 40% – do not. Failure to become securely attached is not dependent on family income, race, education, or other factors. It can happen in any family when mothers and fathers parent from their own agendas, not from what the baby needs.

How do you do this? According to researcher Susan Campbell, parents should “tune in” to babies, picking up on infants’ social signals. Campbell writes, “When helpless infants learn early that their cries will be responded to, they also learn that their needs will be met, and they are likely to form a secure attachment to their parents.” Being attuned means…

  1. Being responsive. Babies who are picked up promptly when they cry learn to cry less, not more. Picking a baby up doesn’t teach him to cry. It teaches him you can be counted on.
  2. Being observant. Babies cry for a reason. What could that reason be? Babies soothe predictably. How does your baby like to be soothed? Remember your infant isn’t trying to make you mad or to manipulate you.
  3. Being calm, not matter what.  In order to become securely attached babies have to feel safe. This means that the “good” you has to show up, no matter what else is going on. Never treat a baby roughly, never yell or scream at your baby. The parent who can be trusted isn’t mean.

Secure attachment is lifelong. It sets the stage for preschool behavior, elementary school success, and teen identity. Your own attachment as an infant drives the way you interact with other people, even today, and even with your own infant. Being attuned to a baby isn’t always easy, especially when we are struggling with our own issues. But the payoff is there. A good, secure relationship with your child is something worth working for.

Babies who develop secure attachment are more likely to be well-behaved, sensible, social children and a pleasure to be around. While it’s never too late to rebuild a relationship with your children, it’s far better to get children off to a good start. Start right with your baby.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders