What does "bonding" mean anyways?


What does it mean to have a secure attachment with your baby? What is bonding? There are a lot of opinions out there these days, as well as myths and judgements about what it means to be a good parent. Our own parents are often certain that the way they did things was the best way but there is a lot of research that has been done on these topics. We’ve learned a lot about human needs in the last 30 years. But when even the “experts” always seem to be changing their minds, how are you, as a parent, going to make sense of it all?

Personally, I like to look at research. The problem is, it’s not always that easy to apply research to your own, real life, baby. The truth is, not only is each baby different, so is each parent. That’s why we have to find a way that is going to work in our own lives. And trust me, after 28 years of being a parent, there are plenty of things I’ve done that you won’t find in any parenting books. But there are some really important things that research has uncovered and I think the key to navigating this tricky thing called parenting, is to understand some of the research findings so that you don’t fall prey to following bad advice and then to really trust your own instincts and just enjoy your child or children.

What is attachment? Here is a definition offered by Alan Stroufe, developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the Univeristy of Minnesota:

Attachment [in the scientific sense] is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”

A secure attachment has at least three functions:

·         Provides a sense of safety and security

·         Regulates emotions by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm

·         Offers a secure base from which to explore


So it sounds like secure attachment is pretty important, but how do you get it? Well, that can be tricky to describe because it’s based on something called “attunement”.  Attunement occurs when a parent or caregiver responds to a baby’s cues. That often just means looking into a baby’s eyes as you’re feeding them, mimicking their movements or sounds, or figuring out whether they are hungry or cold. But interestingly, missing a baby’s cues can be just as important in creating attunement and attachment as being responsive to them. An adult who is attuned to a baby will repair a missed cue, and this repair is one of the most important things that happens to create a secure attachment. So, this might look like a baby looking for a nipple, but Mom is otherwise occupied and doesn’t notice. Then the baby might begin to whimper, or bob their head. If this doesn’t get some attention, the baby will begin to cry. That gets some attention! Mom responds, picks up baby, comforts the baby and begins feeding and voila! The missed cue or cues are repaired. Being hyper-vigilant and responding to a baby’s every cue doesn’t create a secure attachment. The missed cues are really important too. In addition, there’s no set formula you can follow to get that secure attachment. Honestly, I think one of the best ways to ensure a secure attachment is to focus on enjoying your baby. And you don’t have to be enjoying your baby every moment! There will be times when you feel frustrated, when you feel like you’re failing, even. That’s okay and perfectly normal. But what you want to focus on is: are there times every day when you are enjoying your baby? Are you able to have moments of relaxation for yourself? Do you feel loved and supported yourself? When you feel good, it will be easier to bond well with your baby. It’s not just Mom who needs a secure attachment with the baby, either. Humans are meant to have several people we are bonded with.  So, get a few people involved. This can take the pressure off, if one, or both of the parents are struggling emotionally.

Here is an excerpt from Diana Divecha’s article”Why attachment parenting isn’t the same as attachment.” that delves into the science and physiology of bonding.

The neurobiology of attachment

“Attachment theory is essentially a theory of regulation,” explains Allan Schore, a developmental neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

The areas of the brain that process emotional and social information begin to differentiate in the last trimester in-utero (whereas the more “intellectual” regions pick up in the second year of life). By birth, the amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex—regions important for emotion processing—are present, but the connections among these areas develop in specific patterns over the first years of life. That’s where input from the primary relationship is crucial, organizing the hierarchical circuitry that will process, communicate, and regulate social and emotional information. Synaptic connections are pruned, and epigenetic processes modify the expression of genes that regulate stress, depending on input from the environment.

Parents use their own empathy, perspective taking, inference, and intuition to discern the needs of the baby. And the behaviors that parents are inclined to do naturally, like eye contact and face-to-face interaction, baby-talking and holding, are exactly the ones shown to grow the neural regions in the baby that influence emotional life. It is through a “right-brain-to-right-brain” reading of each other that the parent and child synchronize their energy, emotions, and communication.

“What a primary caregiver is doing, in being with the child,” explains Schore, “is allowing the child to feel and identify in his own body these different emotional states. By having a caregiver simply ‘be with’ him while he feels emotions and has experiences, the baby learns how to be,” Schore says.

And it’s not just about regulating stress. Supporting positive emotional states is equally important to creating a “background state of well-being.” If the caregiver’s emotions are too high, the stimulation could be intrusive to the baby, Schore explains. Too low, and the baby’s “background state” settles at a low or possibly depressive emotional baseline. Just right, from the baby’s point of view, is best.

Even then, there’s a lot of leeway. As Schore says:

Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps. They also come from a failure to repair ruptures. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off, or maybe the caregiver hasn’t responded and needs to show the baby that she’s there. Either way, repair is possible, and it works. Stress is a part of life, and what we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress.

How important is attachment?

“Nothing is more important than the attachment relationship,” says Sroufe, who, together with colleagues, ran a series of landmark studies to discover the long-term impact of a secure attachment.

Over a 35-year period, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA) revealed that the quality of the early attachment reverberated well into later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for.

One of the most important (and paradoxical) findings was that a secure attachment early in life led to greater independence later, whereas an insecure attachment led children to be more dependent later in life.

The MLSRA studies showed that children with a secure attachment history were more likely to develop:

·         A greater sense of self-agency

·         Better emotional regulation

·         Higher self-esteem

·         Better coping under stress

·         Closer friendships in middle childhood

·         Better coordination of friendships and social groups in adolescence

·         More trusting and positive romantic relationships in adulthood

·         Greater social competence

·         More leadership qualities

·         Happier and better relationships with parents and siblings



As you begin your parenting journey, learn to rely on your own instincts. Don’t worry too much that your friend is doing things in a very different way. Do what feels right for you and your family. People can come from very different philosophies, with very different parenting practices, and both have a very secure attachment with their children. The important thing is to be with your baby and enjoy each other. And remember, even when things don’t go smoothly in the first couple of days (or weeks), human beings are very resilient. We were designed to have some stress. The best way to repair missed bonding time is to make sure you are well supported. Your own emotional state is very important to ensure your baby’s well being. So take some time to look after your own emotional needs, get someone to prepare a nice nourishing meal for you, or take that nice long shower. Take stock of the things that are going well, or get a friend to tell you all the ways you are doing a great job. Looking after a new little human being is hard work! Make sure you give yourself credit for it!

And remember, your baby is designed to bond with you. All those sweet little facial expressions they make, their delicious scent, their impossibly soft skin, these are all designed to pull us into our babies. So if you worry that you won't know how to do it, rely on the best bonding expert in your house: you're baby! Just follow their lead and allow yourself to fall under their spell. You'll be on the right track.

Three Keys to a Secure Attachment

  1. Make sure your own emotional needs are met and find ways to make time for some self care. Hire a post partum doula or enlist friends and family to help you out in the first few weeks of your baby’s life.

  2. Enjoy your baby. Just look at your baby, copy their expressions, inhale their wonderful aroma. Don’t expect yourself to always enjoy your baby.But if you have some moments every day that feel good, you’re doing fine. Remember, independence grows naturally from a base of secure attachment. Don’t be afraid to hold and cuddle your baby for fear of “spoiling” them.

  3. Put away your phone for the first few weeks. Babies need eye contact, but let’s be honest, feeding your baby can be pretty boring and your phone has endless ways of entertaining you. However, you will find that simply gazing at your baby can be pretty intoxicating if you allow yourself be released from being entertained. Your brain and body go through changes equivalent to the changes you experienced during puberty in the first few postpartum weeks. Don’t expect yourself to be reasonable during this time. Make a plan now to help you move through this wonderful but also challenging period.