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Attachment - babies, young children and their parents

attachment; separation; bonding; secure; infant; baby; relationship; mother; sleep; bond; crying; parent; carer; father; ;

Attachment is the strong, long lasting bond which develops between a baby and his or her caregiver. This enables a baby to feel safe and free to learn and explore, and helps with forming relationships throughout their lives.


Providing consistent responsive and sensitive love and care during the first few months can help your baby develop. Responding to babies' cues not only helps them to develop secure attachment but also is the beginning of two-way communication.

Unresponsive care can lead to attachment problems that can have an ongoing negative effect on your baby’s development.

Human beings are designed to connect together - we all need a safe and secure base. People who have had strong attachments as babies develop an inner sense of security, enjoy trusting long-term relationships, seek out support and have an ability to share feeling with others.

Who do babies attach to?

  • Babies develop attachment relationships with their main caregiver or caregivers over the first few months of life.
  • Babies can form attachments with more than one person. In fact if there is a problem with the relationship with the main caregiver, eg if the mother is depressed or very distracted, a secure attachment relationship with another caring person can help to balance this and give the baby a positive relationship model. This can be father, grandparent, key child care worker or anyone who has a main role in caring for the child.
  • Attachment to others does not affect a baby's attachment to his or her main caregiver. It helps him or her learn about being close to people.
  • However if babies have too many different caregivers and different relationship patterns to adjust to, it can be difficult for them to be able to develop secure relationships. For example they may have problems with sleep or feeding (although there are many other causes for sleep and feeding problems!).

What are attachment behaviours?

Attachment behaviours are when babies and toddlers try to get comfort and protection from the people they feel attached to.

  • This can be by making eye contact, smiling and cooing, crawling and following, holding out their arms, crying and many other signals that parents and carers learn to know.
  • When the child gets an appropriate response, such as eye contact, a smile, a touch or a quick cuddle, and feels safe, the child is free to relax, play, explore and learn again.
  • If the response is not sensitive to the baby's needs, for example if the baby feels ignored or punished, the baby continues to feel anxious or afraid and continues the attachment behaviour. So, for example, if the parent thinks a toddler should be brave and urges her to leave the safety of being close before she is ready, the child is likely to respond by feeling more afraid and clinging more. Some babies or toddlers who are very afraid eventually give up trying.
  • Helping children to feel safe first is the best way to encourage them to be brave.

Responding to babies' cues

Responding to babies' cues not only helps to develop secure attachment but also is the beginning of two-way communication.

Approaching our babies calmly and gently requires most of us to slow down.  This may mean that we have to make changes to our own lifestyles in order to be with our babies at their pace that allows us to notice their signals to us.

Even young babies can give signals for attention, and also signals for when the care is not quite right.

To show they need attention young babies may:

  • make eye contact
  • make little noises
  • smile
  • copy the parent's gestures
  • look relaxed and interested

To show when they need a break or perhaps a different, gentler approach young babies may:

  • look away
  • shut their eyes
  • try to struggle or pull away
  • yawn
  • look tense and unsettled
  • cry.

It is important to respond to these signals in ways that meet your baby’s needs because this says to the baby that they have been heard and responded to. Your baby is then beginning to develop a sense of an independent self. When your baby lets you know she needs a break it is important to understand that she is not rejecting you, but is simply indicating her own needs.

Small babies cannot yet think about someone else's needs.

Babies will develop their own special ways of showing what they need and special patterns of interaction with their parents.

For more ideas have a look at 'Bonding with your baby: ideas' on the Raising Children Network http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/pip_bonding.html/context/280

Attachment and separation

By the time your baby is about 6 months old she will have become attached to the people who care for her most. These people will be her safe base to explore the world for the next few years until she is old enough to really feel secure when you are not there. This can also bring with it being afraid of people she does not know so well, sometimes even the other parent or a loving grandparent.

This is a normal part of learning to feel safe in the world and she will soon learn to feel safe again with other people in her life when you reassure her that all is well and if she is not pushed to separate too quickly.

During the next few years until they are about three or four, babies and toddlers gradually get to manage longer separations from their special people. At first they continually check - even follow you into the toilet once they can crawl. Then they will move away and play for a while but check back by looking for you or coming to you from time to time. This is how they gradually develop confidence. By three or four they can usually manage a half day or day with other people without being upset, but some children take longer. It depends on their temperament and their early experiences. This is sometimes known as the 'Circle of security'.

There is more in the topic 'Separation anxiety'

Helping babies have secure attachments

Much research has gone into looking at the best ways to give babies secure foundations.

Have realistic expectations of what babies can do. Knowing how babies develop means you don't expect them to be able to do things that they can't.

  • For example some parents think that young babies are trying to manipulate them when they cry at night. But young babies don't remember that you are there when you are out of sight.
  • They cry because they need something and if parents come when they cry, and comfort them, they eventually learn to know that the world is safe and they cry less.

Be willing to take time to be with your baby and learn to "read" her messages.

  • Young babies often give very small signals for what they need. The carer needs to learn to know their baby’s signals to respond to them.

Be able to respect and think about the baby as a separate person with his or her own needs and wants and feelings.

  • Think about how it feels for a baby to be suddenly picked up without warning and put down somewhere else, or have a nappy change or be handed to a stranger.

Have support for yourself - have someone to talk things over with, to encourage you when you are doing well and to give you a break when you need it.

  • It is often much harder than you would think to learn, understand and respond to little babies, and parents need support too.

Have some understanding of your own parenting, what your parenting meant to you and how it affects the way you feel about and care for children (because it always does).

What you can do

  • Think about, treat, and talk to your baby as an individual with his own needs, likes and dislikes.
  • Learn to know your baby's signals, what his messages mean, and then respond to them.
  • Think about timing. Introduce changes such as picking up, nappy change gently and gradually - tell your baby what you are going to do so the baby learns that the world is predictable and is not startled.  
  • Be flexible.
    • Learn to know what works for your baby.
    • Develop a routine that suits your baby and you.
    • Remember that babies grow and change quickly, and need more time awake with you, so you need to respond to their changes.
  • Find out about how babies grow and learn so you know what babies are like and don't have unreasonable expectations.  Your baby’s health record ('Blue book' in South Australia) has key points about development.
  • Copy your baby's little noises and gestures - this is the beginning of conversation.
    • Wait for your baby's response before going on.
    • If your baby looks away or yawns, stop and try again later.
  • Make eye contact. Babies like to look into your eyes.
  • Notice when your baby is trying to get your attention with looks, smiles or cries. Crying always signals a need. Take time to watch and learn what your baby might be telling you.
  • Provide comfort when your baby is upset.
  • Try to relax and concentrate on the baby's world, what he is looking at, trying to do, feeling etc.
  • Find out what your baby really likes.
  • Give your baby opportunities to succeed and make things happen, eg put a rattle where he can hit it and make a noise, or crawl to reach it.

Remember you are the most important part of your baby's life.

If you are worried about your relationship with your baby ask for help. It is such an important part of your baby's life that getting help when he or she is young can make a big difference to you and to your baby.

References and further reading

Book 'Right from the Start' available from Women's and Children's Health Network and Parenting SA. http://www.cyh.com/SubContent.aspx?p=467

Raising Children Network

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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