Why is infant attachment such a big deal?

Attachment in infancy is of primary importance between a child and his parents. It is a term that describes the successful bond that initially begins to form between infant and mother and then extends itself to other significant caregivers. Without attachment, there is emotional detachment which often results in the child’s inability to feel and express love toward parents and caregivers.

What Is Meant by the Term, “Attachment.”

“Attachment” is a term used to describe an affectionate tie that develops between an infant and its parent or primary care giver. It involves the development of an emotional connection characterized by feelings of warmth that occur because the child and nurturing adult spend quality spend quality time together. As the child matures certain socialized behaviors demonstrate the reality of attachment formation. Eye contact, smiling, calling out and voluntarily approaching are all indicators that attachment is occurring.

When attachment begins

Until a child enters the world he is physically attached to his mother by an umbilical cord that supplies nourishment, security, and constant contact between fetus and mother. It isn’t any wonder then, that a helpless newborn needs a replacement for the security and sense of belonging that he has experienced in-utero. Some childhood developmental specialists believe that attachment actually begins prior to birth. While an undeniable connection already exists between fetus and mother via the umbilical cord, an emotional connection may begin to develop in the womb as well. As the unborn baby hears the sound of his mother’s voice and senses the reassuring calm that is reflected in her tone, he prepares for the moment when he will meet her, face-to-face. Perhaps he even delights in the light sensations of touch that can occur when a mother gently strokes the outline of his little hands and feet as they appear against her abdomen.

The observable process of attachment, however, probably begins in earnest within moments of birth. As mother soothes and pats her newborn his cries are replaced with contented coos which signal the beginning of an emotional bond. In the days and weeks ahead a two-way relationship will emerge between parent and child as they trade smile-for-smile, engage in physical touch, and speak to each other with the delightful sounds that we often refer to as “baby talk.” We call the formation of this bond, “attachment.

Additional gains from attachment

Aside from the relationship that forms between child and parent during attachment, other studies have documented additional measurable outcomes for children who have bonded with a parent or caregiver that reveal positive effects on growth and maturation. These studies suggest that children who have affectionate ties with adults demonstrate more success in the following:

• Thinking more logically
• Developing a sense of “right” from “wrong”
• Coping with stress and change
• Experiencing less feelings of jealousy
• Coping with fears
• Worrying less

Children need to feel physically and emotionally secure in order to move healthfully through each of life’s developmental stages. The child who feels protected and safe in the knowledge that he is cared for, will have the self-confidence to try out his new world and will build a sense of competency as he masters each new developmental milestone.

When there is no attachment

Most infant and toddler professionals agree that the first three years of life are critical for bonding and attachment. When children suffer abuse and neglect or are abandoned, psychosocial development is severely impacted and maladaptive behaviors surface that may even include violence. When this is the case, a child may be diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Symptoms are varied and may include the following:

• Poor peer relationships
• A superficial pretense of willingness to participate in the life of
   the family, which is really a form of manipulation
• Lying
• Stealing
• Lack of remorse 
• Fire setting
• Displacing blame onto others in order to be seen as a victim
• Poor impulse control
• Cruelty to animals
• Inability to understand “cause and effect.”
• Discernible discrepancy between chronological and emotional age

Perhaps the saddest aspect of RAD is that it is a generational issue. The cycle begins with one abandoned and neglected child who becomes an insecure and emotionally detached adult. That adult may become a biological parent but there is increased likelihood that a bond between parent and child will not form. The emerging pattern reveals generation after generation of emotionally frozen human beings, incapable of forming healthy, mature relationships.

Though some progress has been made in developing therapeutic treatment for children who diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, attachment issues in childhood continue to have deep significance well into the adult years. The road from abandonment, neglect, and abuse to the formation of a life-giving bond is a heart-breaking one and remains filled with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional obstacles. It would appear that “too little and too late” is an appropriate epithet for children suffering from lack of love and attachment.