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)
Parents are influenced by many factors as they build this relationship:
Influences on the positive outcome: Securely attached to parents and caregivers
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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 babys 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 babys body language. Parents who are actively involved with their baby increase their sensitivity and come to understand the babys cues. They are in tune with the babys 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)
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 caregiversThere have been many studies of how a mothers 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 to 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 caregiver 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
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)