Why a baby’s connection with a parent matters
In pediatrics, attachment is the emotional connection that develops between a young child and a parent or other caregiver.
Attachment theory was developed in the mid-20th century by a British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, whose own upper-class British upbringing included the loss of a beloved nanny, and an early trip to boarding school.
Mary Ainsworth, his student and later collaborator, devised what is known as the strange situation procedure, in which a 1-year-old is briefly separated from the parent or caregiver, and then reunited, and the behavior during reunions is closely observed.
These experiments, which stressed the child briefly, but then immediately ended the stress, were correlated with in-home observations of parent-child relationships, and researchers built a kind of taxonomy of attachment, reading children’s behavior in the strange situation as an index to the quality of the bond with the parent.
“The reason the strange situation is so important is because early research and repeated studies showed that what parents did at home or in various situations predicted how children behaved in the strange situation,” said Virginia M. Shiller, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University Child Study Center and author of the “The Attachment Bond: Affectional Ties Across the Lifespan.”
A child who has the general sense that the parent is likely to be responsive, she said, is going to ask for attention when the parent comes back in. The child may be upset, but calms down quickly, comforted by the parent, and thereby demonstrates what is called “secure attachment.”
Attachment, said Susan Berger, a developmental psychologist who is associate professor of pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, is about “being sensitive to your child in times of stress so they know if they’re upset, hurt, bothered, somebody will come make them feel better so they can move away and be back in their world again.”
On the other hand, children who have not learned to expect comfort and reassurance when they are distressed will demonstrate what is considered insecure attachment.
“When mom or dad come back in they actually turn away, they might crawl away, they might barely look at mom or dad,” Dr. Shiller said. But that’s not because they’re calm. Studies have shown that these children are also feeling the stress of separation, with high heart rates and elevated levels of stress hormone. In other words, she said, “while one might say, ‘well, that’s just an independent child,’ we have other information that this child is stressed and saying, ‘I’m going to somehow manage this on my own.’”
As they grow up, children need to explore the world in a widening circle of strange situations, experiencing what is new and by definition somewhat stressful. They need to move gradually further and further away from their parents, but they need to know they can come back for reassurance and comfort.