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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.