Babies and their parents need to get to know each other. As parents respond affectionately to their babies’ needs, a responsive, trusting relationship develops in which they gain confidence that their parents will protect them and meet their needs. This relationship is referred to as secure attachment. Attachment relationships are specific to an individual - infants can become attached to more than one person and each relationship evolves independently (69). The experience of successful attachment as an infant is an important base on which to build future emotional, cognitive and social well-being (69, 70).

Attachment is "an active, affectionate, reciprocal relationship specific to two people." (64)

Parents are influenced by many factors as they build this relationship:

  • the extent to which they want to repeat or change their own experience of being parented

  • their own personalities

  • their conscious or unconscious perceptions of their own experience of being parented

  • their current life circumstances, particularly intimate relationships that support or undermine their self-esteem and competence (197) and levels of stress (e.g., work/family tensions).

Babies are also active partners in these relationships. Babies are born with individual physical differences and they each respond differently to their environments. These unique characteristics affect the parents’ experiences of their babies and can in turn affect other aspects of their relationships. However, studies consistently show that the mother has a much stronger influence on the relationship than the baby (197).

Influences on the positive outcome: Securely attached to parents and caregivers

Sensitive attunement and involvement of parents and caregivers
Emotional health of parents and caregivers
Parent’s beliefs and expectations

Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down menu above. Please use this menu to navigate within this ppage.

Sensitive attunement and involvement of parents and caregivers

Close contact and responsiveness between parents and their babies help build positive patterns of interaction between them. In the first few months, sensitive parents learn to recognize and to respond effectively to their baby’s non-verbal cues. When infants are uncomfortable, hungry, or distressed they cry, make other noises and move in certain ways. Parents observe how their baby responds to their care and become attuned to the baby’s body language. Parents who are actively involved with their baby increase their sensitivity and come to understand the baby’s cues. They are in tune with the baby’s signals and know how to provide comfort and amusement.

In the first months, the parent-infant relationship is built mainly around bodily functions - feeding and sleeping. At about two months infants become more responsive and increasingly respond to smiling and other forms of social interaction (224). As they get older, they want to play, to touch, to feel and to explore things in their environment. Responsive parents observe and learn which activities and toys interest their child. Children look to their parents for stimulation, encouragement and support as they explore the world around them and learn new activities.

Between seven and nine months, infants seem to identify more strongly with some adults in their world. They begin to focus their attachment on a small number of caregivers and become more wary of strangers (224). The adults with whom they have caring, supportive relationships are a source of comfort and security and they measure their new experiences against these relationships. As they use their increasing mobility to explore the world around them, children seem to draw on the confidence they have of being loved and protected in these secure relationships (45).

  • Families can prepare for the change a new baby will bring to the household by discussing what changes are likely, how they will feel about these changes, and how they will support one another as they adapt to having a new baby. An excellent book on this is When Couples Become Parents by Cowan and Cowan, Basic Books, 1992
  • The physical closeness of breastfeeding helps mothers bond with their infants and get to know them.

  • Relaxed parents are more able to be involved with their babies. Families can develop strategies to support one another and take the time needed to get to know the baby.

  • Talk about the father’s role and how he can become involved with the baby.

  • Emotional support of the mother and childcare support by the father have been shown to have a positive influence on the care mothers provide for their babies (45).

  • Community initiatives that help parents to understand the needs of their babies and to feel comfortable and confident caring for their babies help them to establish warm and responsive relationships. While some parents actively seek information and opportunities to learn about parenting new infants, seeking help beyond immediate friends and family is not the norm in our society. The process of reaching out to new parents is important.

  • Family resource centres exist in many communities. They vary in the range of supports they provide, but are staffed by people who are warm and accepting; who can help answer questions asked by new parents; and who model good parenting behaviours themselves. Their goal is to build a respectful relationship with parents reinforcing and building on existing strengths. The range of services these centres offer may include a drop-in centre, scheduled events for parents to get together, and structured programs for infants and parents. They provide supportive, unthreatening, accessible, and informative services (237).

  • Homevisiting programs are designed to provide support and develop the confidence and competence of parents. Various studies have shown that well designed homevisiting programs can improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of families (41). Homevisiting is most often used with families who have the greatest need for support such as young, single mothers, poor families, and families who may not regularly access other community services. Home visitors need to be well trained and supported. Their successful interaction with the family depends on their ability to establish a positive, trusting relationship with them (22,41,87,148).

  • Infant stimulation programs provide opportunities for caregivers to get together with other caregivers and their babies, and learn new skills from a trained leader.

  • There are few opportunities for fathers to discuss their fathering role and to learn about infant development and care. One example of a program trying to meet this need is Dads Canada.

Emotional health of parents and caregivers

There have been many studies of how a mother’s emotional health affects her capacity to develop a secure relationship to her infant, although the relationship is still not well understood.

Emotionally healthy parents are more likely to be capable of responding warmly to the needs of their babies and ensuring the development of positive, caring and involved relationships with their babies. Parents who have serious emotional health problems will have more difficulty becoming sensitively attuned with their infants. Depending on how serious the problems are and how long they last will influence the development of their children (124, 190). A supportive, stable relationship with a partner may help buffer a baby from the effect of the other parent's emotional problems. (328)

Maternal depression has been consistently identified as a risk for poor outcomes for infants, although not all depressed mothers are unsuccessful in forming secure attachments with their babies. Recent studies suggest that depression can result in many of the factors which are key to building secure attachment being absent (224, 114).

Babies' attachments to adults are relationship-specific. In situations where the primary care giver does not have the capacity for the warm involvement with the infant that is needed for secure attachment, other family members can provide the nurturing needed for healthy development (224).

  • Developing screening processes that identify mothers with attachment problems is the first step in providing support or additional professional assistance if it is needed.

  • Homevisiting provides a way to reach out to mothers who are isolated. Trained home visitors are in a position to observe difficulties mothers may be experiencing with their infants. They can provide immediate support, help them learn to respond positively to their infants, or refer them to other community services that could be helpful (96).

Parents' beliefs and expectations

Parents develop expectations about their children, even before they are born. These expectations are described as their "working model of the child." This working model shapes how they perceive, interpret and experience their infants. Most parents have some flexibility and as they discover their babies, they adjust their expectations to correspond with their needs (223, 14).

For other parents, the expectations they have of the infant during the pregnancy do not change. They seem to colour the parent-child experience and in fact predict the kind of attachment the infant has more than a year later (223, 14).

  • Mothers and fathers need to discuss their feelings and expectations related to the new baby.

  • Provide opportunities to explore their feelings and expectations about a new baby and to deal with aspects of their own thoughts and experiences that may inhibit their forming a positive attachment to the infant.



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