VIDEO: Creating Secure Infant Attachment
Helping your baby get the best possible start in life
While it’s easiest to form a secure attachment bond with an infant, it can be formed at any age—and can ensure your child has the best possible start in life.
The attachment bond is the emotional connection formed by wordless communication between an infant and you, their parent or primary caretaker. A landmark report, published in 2000 by The Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, identified how crucial the attachment bond is to a child’s development. This form of communication affects the way your child develops mentally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. In fact, the strength of this relationship is the main predictor of how well your child will do both in school and in life.
The attachment bond is not founded on the quality of your care or parental love, but on the nonverbal emotional communication you develop with your child. While attachment occurs naturally as you, the parent or caretaker, care for your baby’s needs, the quality of the attachment bond varies.
Developing a secure attachment bond between you and your child, and giving your child the best start in life, does not require you to be a perfect parent. In fact, the 2000 study found that the critical aspect of the child–primary caretaker relationship is NOT based on quality of care, educational input, or even the bond of love that develops between parent and infant. Rather, it is based on the quality of the nonverbal communication that takes place between you and your child.
[Watch: Creating Secure Infant Attachment]
While it's easiest to form a secure attachment bond when your child is still an infant—and reliant upon nonverbal means of communicating—you can begin to make your child feel understood and secure at any age. Children's brains continue maturing well into adulthood (until their mid-20s). Moreover, because the brain continues to change throughout life, it's never too late to start engaging in a nonverbal emotional exchange with your child. In fact, developing your nonverbal communication skills can help improve and deepen your relationships with other people of any age.
As a parent or primary caretaker for your infant, you can follow all the traditional parenting guidelines, provide doting, around-the-clock care for your baby, and yet still not achieve a secure attachment bond. You can tend to your child's every physical need, provide the most comfortable home, the highest quality nourishment, the best education, and all the material goods a child could wish for. You can hold, cuddle, and adore your child without creating the kind of attachment that fosters the best development for your child. How is this possible? Importantly, creating a secure attachment bond differs from creating a bond of love.
Children need something more than love and caregiving in order for their brains and nervous systems to develop in the best way possible. Children need to be able to engage in a nonverbal emotional exchange with their primary caretaker in a way that communicates their needs and makes them feel understood, secure, and balanced. Children who feel emotionally disconnected from their primary caregiver are likely to feel confused, misunderstood, and insecure, no matter how much they're loved.
|The Difference Between Bonding and a Secure Attachment Bond|
|Bonding…||Secure Attachment Bond…|
|Refers to your sense of connection to your child. It begins before birth and usually develops very quickly in the weeks after baby is born.||Refers to your child’s emotional connection with you that begins at birth and continues developing throughout life.|
|Is task-oriented. You attend to your child’s needs, whether it’s changing diapers and feeding them, or taking them to soccer practice and the movies.||Focuses on what is happening in the moment between you and your child. For example, your child’s nonverbal cues tell you they’re feeling unhappy and you show understanding and respond with a hug.|
|You maintain your regular adult pace while attending to your child. For example, you hurry to feed your child dinner so you have time to watch your favorite TV show, or cut short playing a game to answer a text.||You follow your child’s slower pace and take the time to decipher and respond to their nonverbal cues that communicate, for example, “I’m in no hurry, I’m having fun just hanging out with you.”|
|You as the parent initiate interaction with your child. For example, you want to get a cute photo of your baby so you initiate play time, or you make your teen his favorite meal so he’ll tell you how things are going at school.||Your child initiates and ends the interaction between you. You pick up on your baby’s nonverbal cues that they need to rest, so you postpone taking a photo. Or your teen’s cues tell you now is not a good time to talk so you postpone your questions.|
|You focus on future goals by, for example, trying to do everything you can to have the smartest, healthiest child.||You stay “in the moment.” You listen, talk, or play with your child, giving them your full attention without distractions.|
The words bond or bonding are commonly used to describe both caretaking and the emotional exchange that forms the attachment process, even though they are very different ways of connecting with your child.
By understanding the developmental milestones related to secure attachment, you can spot symptoms of insecure attachment and take steps to immediately repair them. If your child misses repeated milestones, it's crucial to consult with your pediatrician or child development specialist.
Obstacles to creating a secure attachment may first appear when your child is an infant. You may deeply love your baby, yet be ill-equipped to meet the needs of your infant's immature nervous system. Since infants cannot calm and soothe themselves, they rely on you to do so for them. However, if you're unable to manage your own stress, to quickly regain your calm and focus in the face of life's daily stressors, you'll be unable to calm and soothe your baby.
[Read: Building a Secure Attachment Bond with Your Baby]
Even an older child will look to you, the parent, as a source of safety and connection and, ultimately, secure attachment. If, however, you are frequently depressed, anxious, angry, grieving, pre-occupied, or otherwise unable to be calm and present for your child, their physical, emotional, and/or intellectual development may suffer.
The new field of infant mental health, with its emphasis on brain research and the developmental role of parents, provides a clearer understanding of factors that may compromise the secure attachment bond. If either the primary caretaker or the child has a health problem, nonverbal communication between the two may be affected, which in turn can affect the secure attachment bond.
Experience shapes the brain and this is especially true for newborns whose nervous systems are largely undeveloped.
Fortunately, as the infant brain is so undeveloped and influenced by experience, a child can overcome any difficulties at birth. It may take a few months, but if the primary caretaker remains calm, focused, understanding, and persistent, a baby will eventually relax enough for the secure attachment process to occur.
A child's experience and environment can affect their ability to form a secure attachment bond. Sometimes the circumstances that affect the secure attachment bond are unavoidable, but the child is too young to understand what has happened and why. To a child, it just feels like no one cares and they lose trust in others and the world becomes an unsafe place.
The feelings you experience as a primary caretaker can shape the developmental process occurring in your child's brain. If you are overly stressed, depressed, traumatized, or unavailable for whatever reason, you may not have the awareness or sensitivity to provide the positive emotional mirroring your child needs for secure attachment.
Sometimes even a healthy, caring, and responsible caretaker may have trouble understanding and initiating a secure attachment bond with their child. If, as a child, you didn't experience a secure attachment bond with your own primary caregiver, you may be unaware of what secure attachment looks or feels like. But adults can change for the better, too. Just as you can strengthen yourself with exercise and a healthy diet, you can also learn to manage overwhelming stress and deal with emotions that may interfere with your ability to create a secure attachment bond.
Cell phones, computers, TV, and countless other distractions of daily life can prevent you from giving your full attention to your child. Responding to an urgent email during meal time, texting a friend during play time, or just zoning out in front of the TV with your child are all ways parents miss out on opportunities to make eye contact with their child and engage in the secure attachment process. Without eye contact and your full attention, you'll miss your child's nonverbal cues.
You don't have to be a perfect parent to build a secure attachment bond with your infant—no one is able to be fully present and attentive to a child 24-hours a day. Because the brain is capable of changing, repair is always possible and may even strengthen the secure attachment bond.
If you notice there's a disconnect between you, when you've missed or misinterpreted your child's cues, and attempt to repair it by continuing to figure out what your child needs, the secure attachment process will stay on track. The effort involved in repair can even deepen trust, increase resiliency, and build a stronger relationship.
Nonverbal cues are sensory signals communicated by a certain tone of voice, touch, or facial expression. A child's primary caretaker brings all of these unique qualities together to create a sense of recognition, safety, and comfort for a child. Even when a child is old enough to talk, nonverbal communication remains key to building and maintaining a secure attachment.
Eye contact – You look at your child affectionately and they pick up on the positive emotion conveyed by this nonverbal signal and feel safe, relaxed, and happy. If you're depressed, stressed, or distracted, you may not look directly into your child's eyes at all. Maintaining eye contact also plays an important role in sustaining the flow of conversation between you and your child.
Facial expression – Your face is able to express countless emotions without you saying a word. If your expression is calm and attentive when you communicate with your child, they will feel secure. But if your face looks distressed, angry, worried, sad, fearful, or distracted, your child will pick up on these negative emotions and feel stressed, unsafe, and unsure.
Tone of voice – Even if your child is too young to understand the words that you use, they can understand the difference between a tone that is harsh, indifferent or preoccupied, and a tone that conveys tenderness, interest, concern, and understanding. When talking to older children, make sure that the tone you use matches what you're saying.
Touch – The way you touch your child conveys your emotional state—whether you're attentive, calm, tender, relaxed, or disinterested, upset, and unavailable. The way you wash, lift, or carry your baby or the way you give your older child a warm hug, a gentle touch on the arm, or a reassuring pat on the back can convey so much emotion to your child.
Body language – The way you sit, move, and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to your child. Talk to your child with your arms crossed and your head back and they will see you as defensive and uninterested. But sit with a relaxed, open posture, leaning towards your child and they will feel what they're saying matters to you.
[Read: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language]
Pacing, timing, and intensity – The pacing, timing, and intensity of your speech, movements, and facial expressions can reflect your state of mind. If you maintain an adult pace, or are stressed or otherwise inattentive, your nonverbal actions will do little to calm, soothe, or reassure your child. You need to be aware of your child's preferences for pacing and intensity, which are often slower and less forceful than your own.
As there are many reasons why a loving, conscientious parent may not be successful at creating a secure attachment bond, HelpGuide has created unique resources to help the process:
Informed by leaders in the new field of infant mental health, this HelpGuide video demonstrates what a secure attachment bond looks like from the perspective of the infant as well as the parent.
Additionally, the video explains why a loving parent may not be able to create a secure attachment bond or why an infant may not be able to participate in the two-way emotional exchange that creates this bond.
Secure attachment is an ongoing partnership between you and your baby, but it doesn't mean you have to be the perfect parent. Building a Secure Attachment Bond with Your Baby can help you understand your baby's cries, interpret their signals, and respond to your baby's needs for food, rest, love, and comfort.
Experiencing attachment issues or attachment disorders, such as reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED), can affect your child’s ability to express emotions, develop trust and security, and build meaningful relationships later in life. The earlier you spot any attachment issues, the sooner you can take steps to repair the attachment bond.Last updated or reviewed on April 14, 2023
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