For young children attachment is more than just a feeling; it’s a critical part of healthy development. “Attachment is a reciprocal relationship formed between a child and a care giver, most often a parent,” explains, Jane Kostelc early childhood specialist at Parents as Teachers National Center. “Although the expression of love is an important part, the most secure attachments form when the parent can accurately read the baby’s cues and meet the child’s needs. The child then responds with trust and interest.” Caring adults are essential to a baby’s or young child’s development, especially social-emotional development. Since many children spend much of their day in child care settings, it’s important for attachment relationships to include adults other than just parents. Children can love and become attached to more than one adult. Children thrive in environments that foster attachment through consistent and loving care. This is why child care providers, in addition to parents, are also encouraged to form attachments with the children in their care.
Attachment Is Critical In The Early Years
Feelings of attachment influence later social development and relationships. This primary relationship is the basis for all other relationships. It also lays the foundation for the development of self-concept and self-regulation. Babies have a natural ability to engage adults to fall in love with them. This is important because babies are born totally dependent on adult care. The way an adult responds to a child allows the child to develop feelings of trust and compassion. “When an adult responds to a baby’s coos, the child learns that he is important and lovable,” said Kostelc. “When he reaches for the buttons on the TV and an adult gently and consistently redirects him, he learns rules and expectations. Eventually this will lead to self-regulation of behavior.” Many problems or successes throughout childhood, adolescence and into adult life can be traced back to whether or not a child developed a secure attachment as a baby. A child who does not develop a secure attachment might show anger or aggression to adults and peers. He may be fearful and unable to venture away from adults. He may find it difficult to be comforted or to feel safe and not respond to warmth from adults.
Factors That Promote Secure Attachment
Since forming a strong attachment is so crucial, parents and care providers should be deliberate about ensuring a child has access to the types of care that encourage attachment. Here are some risk factors that threaten the development of a secure attachment:
• Family circumstances – Lack of attachment is especially high in families where there is stress and instability such as job loss, failing marriage, financial difficulties and other stressors. All these circumstances can interfere with the sensitivity of parental care and response to the infant’s cues.
• Unresponsive child care arrangements – An infant who spends a majority of the day with a care provider who gives physical care but doesn’t show warmth or quality in her responses might be at a disadvantage when it comes to successfully forming a secure attachment. Care providers must give more than just routine physical care. A care provider who is responsive and playful, cuddles and is affectionate demonstrates love that a child learns to reciprocate. Parents who work and are away from their children need to do research and evaluate where and with whom they place their children for a good portion of the day. They need to choose places where high-quality, responsive care is provided.
• Multiple transitions – Young children can’t form healthy attachments if the adults in their lives move in and out too often. It takes time for care providers to learn the cues of the babies in their care; likewise, babies need to get to know and understand their care providers. This cannot happen if the baby has too many adults in his day or if he moves to a new classroom every few months. Early childhood researchers suggest that infants and toddlers spend their first three years in consistent care for secure attachment to develop.
Child Care Can Support Healthy Attachment
One way to curb these risk factors is for care providers to see the value in forming attachments with the children in their care. Care providers are encouraged to hold and cuddle babies tenderly. “If a certain baby tends to avoid hugs, the care provider can find other ways to provide healthy touches,” explains Jill Bailey, early childhood specialist at Parents as Teachers National Center. “She might kiss the baby’s fingers, toes and tummy when diapering for example or use massage to soothe and calm a child. Care providers also need to create everyday routines to promote secure attachments. When possible, the same care provider should do routine things like change a child’s diaper.” Care providers are also encouraged to eat with the children, be emotionally available and do activities with the children in their care.
Children Can Love More Than One Adult
Parents may need to be reassured that the love and attachment a child develops with a care provider will not replace his love for his parent. Having numerous opportunities to form a secure attachment will only benefit the child’s development. To help ease apprehension, parents and care providers can work together by sharing information and openly communicating. Parents should tell the care provider how the night went and care providers should share how the time spent apart from mom or dad went. Daily notes or other types of communication should go home with each infant and toddler everyday. Daily, short conversations, notes, a notebook for journaling back and forth, or phone calls are all ways care providers and parents can support each other and communicate with respect. Care providers can also support healthy attachment between parent and child by having a place for moms to breast feed and having a place for parents to sit and play with the child when dropping off or picking up after work.
The above tips and a conscientious effort on the part of all care givers is a great start for increasing the likelihood for secure attachments to develop in infants and toddlers. Parents and care providers should, however; be aware that sometimes there are other underling factors that might prevent a child from forming a secure attachment with adults. These reasons can be the result of medical or developmental conditions. If parents or care providers are concerned that something might be wrong they are encouraged to talk with a healthcare provider or seek out advice from parenting programs like Parents as Teachers.
For more information on Parents as Teachers, early childhood development or to find a Parents as Teachers program in your area, visit www.ParentsAsTeachers.org.