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What is Attachment?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

By: Audrey Woods, M.A., LPC 

You’re sitting with your newborn, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, neither of you have slept very much, and yet here you are: awake. Those first few months with a baby are, shall we say, challenging. In the sleep deprived stupor, there can also be a profound sense of connectedness. This connection with your baby is perhaps the most important foundation you can offer your little one. It’s called attachment. Dr. Mary Ainsworth, a Developmental Psychologist, defined attachment as “an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time.” Dr. Ainsworth pioneered research into that connection and why it is so important.

Attachment involves a desire for regular contact with ‘that person’ and the experience of distress when separated from ‘that person.’ If attachment doesn’t happen, the child can be stuck in the fight, flight or freeze mode because the neural pathways in the sympathetic nervous system do not develop properly. So you are literally shaping your baby’s brain when you soothe them. As children get older, those who do not have a secure attachment with their caregivers often have moderate to severe behavioral issues at school and home. So how do you successfully create a secure attachment with your little one?

There are three components to building attachment: 1) attunement or the ability to be aware of another person’s emotional or physical state. Basically your ability to recognize what’s happening with your kiddo. 2) Co-Regulation, meaning responding to the child’s level of physical/emotional arousal and modulating it in ways that maintain/return it to a comfortable level. This is your ability to help your kiddo calm down or react more appropriately to a situation. The more you help your kiddo regulate themselves, the more they will be able to do it on their own. 3) Lastly, when parents and kids practice attunement and co-regulation, this leads to a companionship or a shared experience called intersubjectivity.

This looks like your effort to guess why your baby is crying do what you can to fix it with a fresh diaper, a swaddle, or a bottle. Make no mistake, babies cry for long periods of time for absolutely no apparent reason, no matter what you do. This is perfectly normal and will not disrupt your attachment. Attachment is formed over time, greatly influenced in the first year of life. We can literally see babies’ sympathetic nervous systems learning to regulate in that first year. As baby has more experiences with you, baby will release less cortisol in various situations because they are learning to trust you! See how babies change in the first year (credit to Tracy Cutchlow, Zero to Five 70 Essential Parenting Tips):

Newborn: cortisol is released even if baby is picked up

3 months: being picked up is no longer stressful, but a doctor exam is

6 months: cortisol is less reactive during a doctor exam and shots

9 months: being left with a trusted babysitter barely increases cortisol

13 months: baby can be upset with no increase in cortisol

If your child is struggling with behavioral issues at school or home, working on attachment can have a tremendously positive impact because it recalibrates the brain to regulate itself when stressed instead of over or under reacting. That may mean working with a specialist or a general mental health clinician. You can receive services at Edmond Family Counseling by calling 405-341-3554 and learning more about our intake process. (Audrey Woods, M.A., is a LPC, Board Certified Counselor, and Staff Therapist at Edmond Family Counseling).

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